Ground Cherries: Evoking Memories through Taste

Ground Cherry husks

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “My Grandma always had ground cherries in her garden… She made the best pies and jam,”  I’d be a rich woman. Ground cherries conjure up fond memories for me too, as we had them growing in my families’ garden for generations. We used them for jams, pies, sauces, or my favorite: husked fresh from the garden, still warm and sweet from the sunshine. However, there are folks who have never heard of or tasted this delicious fruit. Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)—not to be confused with tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) or Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)—are native to Central America. They produce a very sweet yellow-gold, cherry-sized fruit in a papery husk that drops from the plant just before they ripen. The heirloom ground cherry ‘Aunt Molly’s’ found its way to the Seed Savers Exchange collection and has been in my garden for years. These plants are part of my garden that seeds itself, and there are always enough fruit left on the ground to seed new plants.

My children loved ground cherries growing up and would inadvertently alert me when they were ripe. I’d find piles of light brown empty husks lying beside the plant or left in a trail leading out of the garden. My youngest daughter recently mentioned how she looked forward to them and that she was surprised how something so sweet was found on the ground—and in Iowa!

My Grandma Ott treasured her ground cherries for jams and pies. She would pick all she could before frost and store them in their husks under a bed upstairs.  They would keep for months in that cool place and could be used fresh for special occasion pies in the winter.

While working in my garden these days, I un-wrap a husk and pop a golden cherry into my mouth to be reminded of Grandma Ott’s kitchen, her pies, and my children’s trail of empty husks leading out of the garden. One of the pleasures of preserving heirloom varieties is they are not only laden with  beauty, diversity and flavor, but they hold the power to bring back emotionally-charged memories with their wonderful taste.

Grandma Ott’s Ground Cherry Pie

  • 1 ½ quarts of husked ripe ground cherries
  • 1 ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup flour
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • Juice of two lemons

Mash about 2 cup of the cherries and add rest whole.  Place in sauce pan with other ingredients and bring to a boil.  Pour into raw pie shell, dot with butter, a sprinkle of nutmeg and pinch of salt.  Add top crust and bake in a 500 degree oven for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake till golden (about 40 minutes).