Ground Cherries—Undiscovered Fruit Gem of the Midwest

Until this summer, I’d never eaten a ground cherry. In fact, I didn’t even know what they were. But my local farmers market had baskets of them for sale and the grower gave me a sample. Pleasant sweetness, with flavors of mango and melon—I thought they’d be nice in a jam or in muffins. I bought a couple of boxes, a ground cherry virgin no more.

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Ground cherries in need of some husking!

Ground cherries, also known to some as Cape gooseberries or husk tomatoes, aren’t cherries (and they aren’t gooseberries, either.) A perennial native to the Americas, ground cherries are fairly common; in fact, the plant is considered to be a weed by many and might be found growing along roads or other disturbed areas. They can grow in fairly poor soils, too. The ground cherry is part of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), which also includes potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, and tobacco. Indeed, the ground cherry resembles a tiny tomatillo, as it is encased in a heart-shaped papery husk. Once ripe, the ground cherries fall to the ground. The husk can then be removed and the fruit eaten or incorporated into a recipe.

Ground cherries should only be eaten ripe. You’ll be able to tell if they are, as the color will be a golden orange-yellow. Unripe ground cherries, which are green, are said to be somewhat toxic, no doubt due to the presence of solanine, a type of natural defense common to nightshades (and the reason you shouldn’t eat the green parts of potatoes). Ripe ground cherries, with their myriad tiny (edible) seeds, however, can be safely eaten.

While they were a Midwestern favorite of yore (older cookbooks have recipes for ground cherry pies), they seem to have fallen out of favor. I assume it’s because of the work involved husking them. You have to remove the papery husk which, since they are small, can take some time and yield you less than you’d expect looking at the carton. But the task isn’t all that onerous and you do wind up with, well, ground cherries!

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Unhusked (left) and husked (right–in the bowl) ground cherries.

In my next posts, I’ll share with you my recipes for Ground Cherry-Coconut Jam and Ground Cherry-Lime Muffins. The coconut and lime are nicely complementary to the flavor of the ground cherries.

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