Sometimes the employees at the Newton Falls Public Library have questions of their own. A staff member brought in recently harvested ground cherries; a small light brown, papery covered fruit about the size of a nickel. Inside the husk was a little yellow ball. Most of the staff was unfamiliar with it. Our more knowledgeable member said you could use them in pies and cobblers. The rest of us wanted to know more about this fruit and how to prepare it.
We began our search browsing through the gardening section of the library. In Botanica's Annuals & Perennials: over 1000 pages & over 2000 plants listed we located the ground cherry (Physalis peruviana) which is also known as a cape gooseberry [pp.677-678]. It is related to the Chinese lantern or winter cherry, a plant often used in floral arrangements. According to Botanica's, it is a South American “perennial . . . often treated as an annual and is grown for its crop of bright yellow to purple edible berries.” VictorySeeds.com refers to another variety, an Eastern European cousin of the Mexican tomatillo (Physalis pruinosa) as a ground cherry or cossack pineapple.
The staff had little success while looking through the library’s large collection of cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Not until we examined the index of Mary Emma Showalter’s 1950 edition of Mennonite Community Cookbook; favorite family recipes did we find a listing for Ground Cherry Pie. The recipe [p.370] requires ripe ground cherries, brown sugar, flour, water, and two pie crusts or one crust and a crumb topping.
The website of Trade Winds Fruit [www.tradewindsfruit.com/ground_cherry.htm] compares the taste to a tomato/pineapple like blend. It recommends using them in salads, desserts, jams, and jellies. The fruit can also be dried or dipped in chocolate. The blog Cook Local [www.cooklocal.com/?p=3307] has a recipe for Ground Cherry Salsa. Cooks.com has 117 recipes for us to peruse for ideas of what to do with ground cherries.
Curious about how to grow our own ground cherries for next year, we searched through the library’s collection of books about seed saving. Seed to Seed: seed saving and growing techniques for vegetable gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth has a chapter on Physalis spp .- Ground Cherries, Husk Tomatoes, Tomatillos, etc. (pp. 159-162). It includes step by step instructions on seed production [p.160], harvesting, processing, planting, transplantation, and care. To ensure we have seeds, we need to remove the paper husks and blend the berries in a processor or blender with enough water to cover them. When blending is complete, the mixture is put into a large bowl and more water is added to double the amount. The mixture is then stirred vigorously, and the good seeds are allowed to sink to the bottom of the bowl. Pour off what remains on top, add more water, and repeat the process until the seeds and water are clean. They are then put into a strainer fine so that the seeds to do not pass through. Wipe the bottom of the strainer to remove moisture, and place the seeds onto a glass or ceramic dish to dry. In this area of Ohio the seeds can be started inside around April 1 in .25 inches of soil, and moved outside around May 15. Ashworth’s book calls the fruit we sampled Downy Ground Cherry (Yellow Husk Tomato).