Last summer, I was browsing a local nursery. Most of their 4-inch vegetable starts were on sale because it was a bit late in the season to plant summer vegetables and have much success. But I felt sorry for a scraggly little ground cherry plant and bought it anyway.
I didn’t give it much hope, but the plant soldiered along and sporadically produced a few ground cherries, not many, over the course of the summer. It was enough to intrigue my then-kindergartner nephew. He sought out the fun little husk-wrapped fruits whenever he visited, and their flavor was sweet enough for him to enjoy. That alone made the plant worth it.
So, this year, I bought a healthy-looking ground cherry plant early in the season.
Treating The Ground Cherry Like A Tomato
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The plant itself looked a bit like a tomato plant to me, so I treated it like one: I kept it in my small greenhouse during our unseasonably cold Pacific Northwest spring and early summer. During its stay in the greenhouse, I moved it to a larger pot where I planted it deeply in the soil – as the plant tag suggested, and as I would do with a tomato plant.
It turns out my suspicions were correct: According to my research, ground cherries and tomatoes are both a part of the nightshade (Solanaceae) plant family.
After just a little while in the greenhouse, the plant was starting to show a few blossoms. They looked insignificant, but they quickly began to take on the telltale paper lantern shape of the husk-wrapped fruits.
I moved the ground cherry outside in late June. Now, in late July, it is about two feet tall. Like a tomato plant, I have it in full sun and give it regular water. Other than that, it’s been very easy care.
Why Ground Cherries Are Fun
Ground cherries get their name because you know the fruit is ripe when it falls to the ground. No guesswork here – just check the ground for these little gift-wrapped surprises that the plant seemingly sheds only when no one is looking.
This year’s harvest from this one plant has been moderate but steady. I’m getting several little gift-wrapped fruits a day.
I can’t decide whether the fruit (which is semi-sweet) has a mildly nutty flavor or a vaguely pineapple-y flavor. Maybe it has both. At any rate, this fruit is not like anything else I’ve ever had.
I’ve been removing these cute little gems from their bio-degradable “wrappers” and using them on salads.
But many of them never make it that far. Like little candies, they are eaten on sight by either me or my visiting nephew. I think he likes unwrapping them just as much as he likes eating them.
Ground cherries are also good in jams, salsas, and pie fillings. But that would take more of them than I am getting from this one plant. I’m not sure why I almost never see ground cherries at farmers’ markets or anywhere else.
A Couple Of Not-So-Fun Things About Ground Cherries
It really is important to only consume the ripe fruit. The ripe fruit is the only part of the plant that is not toxic. So, if you grow ground cherries, never consume (or let anyone else, including pets, consume) any other part of the plant. And never consume a fruit before it is ripe.
The other not-so-fun thing about this plant is slightly less terrifying: The plant itself just isn’t very interesting to look at.
Yep, pretty boring. To me, the fruit is the most attractive part. But, as of today, the plant is still producing fruit and even forming more flowers.
What I’ll Do Differently Next Time
I read that I could grow a ground cherry plant in a 5-gallon container but, next time, I will either use a larger-capacity grow bag or plant it directly into the garden – but away from the overhead sprinklers. The plant doesn’t necessarily look unhappy, but it could probably have done better in optimal conditions.
And I will grow more of them because they really are fun and yummy, and I’d like to try out a few of the recipes I found.
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