Ground Cherry, Wild Husk Tomatoes, Almost

by Green Deane

in Edible Raw, Fruits/Berries, Plants

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Only the ripe fruit in the husk is edible

Physalis: Tomato’s Wild Cousin

I discovered ground cherries quite by accident.

Ground Cherry, P. walteri & P. viscosa

It was back in the last century. I raided a particular field annually for smilax tips and noticed the ground cherries in blossom. That prompted me to returned later in the season to collect them. Unfortunately that field is now a residential neighborhood. While ground cherries are a common plant one has to look for them. They blend in well and don’t announce themselves. Even their blossoms are sotto voce. The blossoms like to look down and this one, right,  had to be coaxed into a picture.

Ground cherries, locally Physalis walteri, (FEE-sa-lis wall-TEER-ee) are  related to tomatoes and tomatillos. Physalis means “bladder” referring to the enclosed fruit.  The Physalis is found in the Old World as well as the New World. There are nine species in here in Florida and you would be hard pressed to tell some of them apart. The local Indians used them interchangeably.

Don't eat them if they are bitter

Don’t eat them if they are bitter

After discovering my local ground cherry inland I then noticed some on the east coast of Florida. They looked similar (both had blossoms with and without purple throats.)  Inland they were P. walteri, and on the coast P. viscosa. I had two different books of Florida wild flowers with good descriptions. Yet I could not tell these two species apart, even after taking into account the blossom variation. I went to a third book and found out why. They are the same species. One book called it P. walteri and did not mention any other names, and the other book called it P. viscosa again also did not include any other names. Sometimes you want to strangle botanists…

That  would mean Physalis viscosa means “sticky bladder” and P. walteri means “Walter’s Bladder.” Who “Walter” was I do not know but many such plants are often named for  Thomas Walter, an 18th century South Carolina botanist. Another ground cherry I’ve found tasty is the Coastal Ground Cherry (Physalis angustifolia) that I have found on the west coast of Florida.

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Not all blossoms have a ruby throat

The fruit is edible raw or cooked, as in pies or preserves. The fruit can fall from the plant before it is ripe. That usually takes a week or two or more until the husk has dried and the fruit a golden yellow to orange. Each fruit is wrapped in a husk that is NOT edible. The fruit will store several weeks if left in the husk.  Unripe fruit — light green — is toxic.  Ripe fruits are light to golden yellow. If any ripe fruit has a bitter aftertaste should be cooked first. If it is still bitter after cooking, don’t eat it.

P. walteri/ P. viscosa

Linguistically the plant has had quite a diverse journey with nearly every country and language having its own (or several) names for the encased fruit. The ancient Greeks used halikakabon and pheesalis (bladder and swelling) the latter was translated into Dead Latin as visicaria. The Italians used halicacabo uolgare and the French halicacabon comun, both of which mean “common bladder.”  In Italy they are now called Coralli (coral) and Palloncini (balloons.) Farther north they were called winter chirir ((winter cherry) Judenkirsen (Jew’s Cherry) and Schlutten (ground cherry in 1542 German) They were also called Judendocken (Jew’s bundle) Judenhutlin (a variation of Jew’s hat) and that got mangled into the English Jerusalem Cherry, which is still used. The Aztecs called it tomatl (source for the words tomato and tomatillo.) In Hawaii it is called Poha.

Coastl Ground Cherry

Coastal Ground Cherry

Other names used include Alkekengi (which is cultivated)  Barbados Gooseberry, cherry tomato, Chinese Lantern, husk tomato, Japanese Lantern, strawberry tomato, tomatillo, wild cherry, winter cherry and Cape Gooseberry. Several other Physalis fruits have been used for food: P. ixocarpa, P. fendleri, P. heterophylla, P. lanceoleta, P. longifolia, P. neomexicana, P. pruinosa, P. pubescens, P. turbinata, P. virginiana, and P. angulata , the latter which is also found locally, growing to more than two feet tall and wide.

Fruit photos by Sybaritica.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

Physalis angulata

IDENTIFICATION: P. walteri/P.viscosa: Fruit is a yellowish sticky berry that does not fill the husk, solitary growing from the leaf’s axil. Leaves are entire or wavy and angled, sometimes toothed. Flowers are yellow with dark centers, purplish antlers, or no dark centers. Entire plant covered with fine hairs, entire plant sometimes appears gray. All the P. angulatas I’ve seen had toothy leaves like the photo at left and strong branching stems.

TIME OF YEAR: Blossoms in late spring fruits towards fall, however in Florida it can have two seasons, summer and fall.

ENVIRONMENT: Old fields, sunny woods, bordering streams, cultivated fields, waste ground, railroads, road sides; full sun to some shade. Low growing, often overlooked. It likes water and humidity.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: When ripe raw or cooked like any fruit, pectin needs to be added to make jelly or jam.  Species with a bitter after taste are better cooked. If bitter after cooking do not eat.  Some foraging books say the fruit does not ripen on the plants but I have found and eaten many that were. More so, like a tomato while it will ripen off the plant it will not improve in sweetness off the plant. Only ripening on the plant accomplishes that.

 

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Green Deane October 27, 2011 at 07:26

Hi Green Deane!

I hope this email finds you doing well. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your website and your videos–they are unbelievably helpful. I can’t thank you enough for all of your help.

I’ve been getting mixed messages about physalis. You (and other sources) seem to have indicated that the fruit of some species of physalis are toxic even when ripe. Other sources indicate that the fruit of all species are edible. (For example, Peterson’s field guide simply says that the ripe fruit of “phsyalis spp.” is edible.) On top of that, I’ve even found a source that the fruit of some species is edible even when unripe, although I would never try that.

If the fruit of some species are toxic (when ripe), do you happen to know which species these are? I live in Missouri, where the leading authority (Steyermark) says that there are some 27 species of physalis. I’d hate to eat the wrong one! :)

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2 Green Deane October 27, 2011 at 07:26

Ground cherries can be a pain to sort out. It took me years to figure out two separate species locally were the same species because not only did they vary a lot but my two official descriptions by different botanists were so different it took me a while to come to that realization.

Generally said the palette tells you. If bitter when unripe or bitter when ripe it should not be eaten. If bitter after cooking one should also avoid it. Also unripe fruit tends to be not worth the time or palette. Ripe ones are. During my last class in Deland FL there were ripe golden groudn cherries in golden husks. They were sweet and delicious. One can pick them early and they will “ripen” off the plant but they won’t improve in flavor whereas if left on the plant they do improve in flavor. Of course, you then have to beat the woodland creatures to the ripe ones.

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3 Josh December 24, 2012 at 17:53

There is a species of physalis here in Kansas (i think its philidelphica or something like that) that has shown promising results at killing various types of cancercells based on some studies and analysis that they are doing with native plants around here. It will be interesting to find out anything comes from it when they do some further testing on it.

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4 Joseph May 26, 2013 at 20:03

I found them growing wild on my 10 acre property.

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5 Emily August 14, 2013 at 17:25

I found them growing wild on my 1/10 acre property. :)

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6 Marianne March 13, 2014 at 11:17

I also have seen them growing on our small acreage, but never knew what they were until today. I always wondered if they were edible, but…
Josh, I am interested in your comment regarding the ground cherry and cancer. I’m also in Kansas, now I have something else to research.
Thanks to eattheweeds for posting this!

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7 Rae March 28, 2014 at 20:02

Embarrassingly I nearly made a very bad mistake today when I found a Horse Nettle (not sure of any more specific name) and thought it must be some kind of ground cherry. Right family (nightshade) wrong plant :( glad I didn’t actually eat any!

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8 fred August 22, 2014 at 16:40

nettles are ok to eat, as long as you arent allergic to them and are careful about the spines.

much like dandelion or other edible wild leafy greens.
can also steam nettles as a tea, the best allergy medicine for me , ever.

just make sure its a nettle and not something else…

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9 Jeremy June 12, 2014 at 15:25

Just found one of these plants growing in my town house yard in an Azalea pot. It grew last year and survived the Plymouth winter without dying back and this year is over two feet high and is now covered in lanterns. I was unsure what it was until the flowers and fruit started appearing. I have a variety of Physalis sold by garden centers here in the UK and the plant dies back in winter – it is only a few inches high, the growth takes a very long time to get started with the half a day or so of sun it sees in my walled garden. Attractive plant to me, I wonder how the seed got there!

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10 Green Deane June 12, 2014 at 17:10

What color is the ripe “lanterns?” If red the fruit is not edible.

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11 Richard June 21, 2014 at 15:16

Physalis longifolia is a common lawn weed in Florida. I have them growing all over my garden right now.

The ripe berries are delicious, but leave a bitter aftertaste, so I’ve never swallowed any. I occasionally chew on one, then spit it all out. They taste like a blend of peach and pineapple. I’ve been doing that for decades, hasn’t killed me yet.

Haven’t tried cooking them yet, but this year I’ve got a lot of them. So I’ll probably try it. If the fruit is still bitter after cooking, I’ll toss it out.

Got some seed of Physalis pruinosa from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which I’m growing in containers. The fruit is small, and not as tasty as P. longifolia. But it’s not bitter.

Nothing seems to eat the fruit of P. longifolia, even when it lays on the ground for a while. Could be an important clue there.

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12 Michael Wilson July 15, 2014 at 16:55

I don’t believe that all ground cherries are toxic when young. I read somewhere, I think in one of Samuel Thayer’s books, that there is a type that is located more in the midwest, that does not have hairs on it but is otherwise a ground cherry. The cherries can be eaten green although the taste is sour/bitter and not very pleasant. I know that the plants growing in my yard are of the smooth variety and I have eaten them green and not suffered more than an upset stomach from eating unripe fruits. But the golden/orange colored fruits are best.

Oh, and I’ve kept them over winter although only if you keep them in the husk. I’m not sure why the difference but if you peel them and then keep them, they will not last.

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13 Denver Davis July 27, 2014 at 22:43

Interesting comments. Never heard of these before this year.
In doing some research for recipes I found this site.

My grandaughter and I built a square foot garden (1 of 4 gardens) and I ordered some seeds, etc. on line, and they sent me a pack of Husk Tomato seeds complimentary. I built a hot bed and planted some of these. They came up late and I thought I was wasting my time. I replanted 4 plants in our sfg 1′ apart and they kicked in high gear. They are now 3′ tall and going wild. Won’t let any weeds grow underneath. Full of ground cherries. Picked up some off the ground and ate them. Delicious. Gathered about 2 dozen off the ground have been eating them. Sent a sandwich bag full home with my son and they love them. Then gathered 3/4 of a big blue coffee can this evening. I will store them for when I come up with a recipe for them. May dehydrate some….

Left a few plants in my hotbed. When I quit tending it, the ground cherries were the last to die off. They are tough.

My wife said her Mother raised them back in the day. Threatened to break their arms if they picked them…lol. We are 60 now. I was looking for a preserve recipe, which I might try, but leaning more to the candied recipes, because it sounds good. Don’t want to mix it to much with other ingredients because I don’t want to take away the attention from the cherry. Read a recipe on chocolate covered.

Going to have to research where the seeds came from because I ordered seeds and plants from several vendors. Will order more seeds next year and take it more serious. Forum says plants will grow from seeds from missed drop berries, but will not take the chance. But will experiment….

Can send pictures of plants if anyone is interested.

Thanks, Denver

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14 carrie September 9, 2014 at 17:01

Our backyard butts up against a cotton field. After the last flood irrigation tomatillo plants sprung up. They’ve just watered again and the plants are getting big, flowering and putting on fruit.
I know that the wild amaranth that grows along the fields shouldn’t be eaten because it holds in a lot of the nitrates and chemicals from the irrigation. Would the fruits of the tomatillo be ok to eat?

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15 Green Deane September 9, 2014 at 17:21

How do you know the are tomatillos?

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16 Keith Payne October 7, 2014 at 07:51

The husk tomato is a wonderful wild edible. I have found them in many states. In Mexico, they are used to make salsa, although, now that the large version has been cultivated and sold in supermarkets, the wild one is used less. You can easily cultivate a rather large patch of them in just a couple of years…..or just note where they are in the wild around your area. Keep an eye on them in the early fall to see when they blossom; The fruit covered in the papery husk will not be far behind. I harvest mine when they have fallen from the plant. Enjoy yet another of nature’s free foods. No planting. fertilizing or weeding necessary!

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