How to Grow Ground Cherries (Husk Tomatoes)
What are Ground Cherries?
Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are a member of the nightshade family. They are related to Chinese lanterns and tomatillos. Since ground cherries are native to Mexico and Central America they are usually grown as an annual here in the US. They are not cherries or related to cherries. They got that name because the fruit resembles a cherry.
Ground cherries are also called husk tomatoes because the berry (or “cherry”) grows inside of a husk that looks like a tomato. The husk is toxic and shouldn’t be eaten. The fruit inside is also toxic until it turns yellow indicating that it is ripe and safe to eat. The berries taste like pineapples with undertones of tomato, which is also a relative and member of the nightshade family.
How to Grow Ground Cherries
Ground cherries are easy to grow. They need full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. These plants are heavy feeders which means that they use up a lot of the nutrients in the soil. Before planting, work a good amount of compost or a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 into your soil to help them grow their best.
If you buy your ground cherries as plant starts from a nursery, plant them 18 – 24 inches apart. You can bury the stem as you would with tomatoes when you plant your ground cherries but it is not necessary. The plants grow wide rather than very tall so they don’t require an extensive root system to support them like tomatoes do. Your plants will ultimately grow to 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide. The plants tend to sprawl so you may want to use small tomato cages to support them and keep them upright. You can also stake the individual plants.
Give them 1 inch of water each week. A thick layer of mulch (2 – 3 inches) will help keep the soil moist between waterings as well as prevent weeds from germinating and growing to compete with your plants for sunlight, nutrients and moisture.
How to Grow Ground Cherries From Seed
Ground cherries have a long growing season so most gardeners start them indoors from seed. Start your seeds 6 – 8 weeks before your last frost date. Plant them ¼ inch deep in a container filled with pre-moistened soil. I find that if I plant seeds in dry soil and then wet it, the soil and the seeds tend to float out of the container so I lightly water my soil first before planting my seeds. Once the seeds are planted, I do a more thorough watering.
Germination of your seeds should occur in 5 – 8 days. You can transplant your seedlings into your garden after your last frost. In my NJ zone 6 garden, I usually wait until the end of May when both the weather and the soil have warmed before planting warm weather plants like ground cherries. Plant your seedlings 18 – 24 inches apart. If you plan on using tomato cages to support them, this is a good time to install the cages rather than waiting until the plants are bigger and it is more difficult to fit the cage over them.
How to Harvest Ground Cherries
Ground cherries got their name from the fruit’s habit of falling to the ground when it is ripe. As the fruit ripens, the surrounding husk turns brown and papery. When the fruit is yellow and has fallen to the ground, it is ready to be harvested. This is another good reason to use mulch – it makes the fallen fruit easier to see.
It’s a good idea to visit your garden often to harvest the fruit. If left unharvested on the ground, the plants will re-seed themselves and you will have a lot of volunteers next spring. Your plants will continue to produce fruit until the first frost kills them.
Ground cherries can be eaten fresh or cooked into jams, tarts, chutneys, sauces or even pies.
How to Store Ground Cherries
Ground cherries can be stored in a cool root cellar or basement for up to three months. You can also freeze the whole berries or dry them like raisins.
© 2020 Caren White