Ground Cherries: Evoking Memories through Taste

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.

Aunt Molly's Ground CherriesHowever, 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.

Ground Cherry husksMy 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).

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Find Aunt Molly’s ground cherry seeds in our online store.

‘Aunt Molly’s’ ground cherries are part of Slow Food USA’s ‘Ark of Taste’– a catalog of delicious foods in danger of extinction. By growing, eating and promoting Ark foods we ensure they remain in production and on our plates.

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Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and promoting America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

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Comments

  1. Does anyone know if deer like to eat these plants??

    • The deer do not appear to eat the ones growing wild in my yard in AZ, and we have plenty of deer and rabbits.

  2. Interesting article! Thank you! By the way, are you related to any of the Ott family that lives (d) in Parke County, Indiana? My maiden name is Ott and that’s where some of my family is from.

  3. I don’t know if deer like them, but I know the squirrels love them! I find a trail of the husks, and it’s not my kids snatching them!

  4. Raechel Murphy says:

    I grew ground cherries for the first time last year, and while I am not a fan of the fruit by itself, I absolutely love, love, love jam made from them. I cannot imagine my garden without them now. Can’t wait to try Grandma Ott’s pie.

  5. Linda J. says:

    We grew up with ground cherries (and deer) and I still grow them. I have never seen deer eat these plants. I suppose it could happen, but I haven’t seen it.

  6. Tomatillos are Physalis ixocarpa.
    Physalis philadelphica is one of the Ground Cherry variants.

    http://plants.usda.gov/java/nameSearch

  7. Kate C, Physallis spp. are Solanaceae, just like tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. I don’t think deer will bother them, as the non-fruit portions of the plant are poisonous.

    Not mentioned in the article is that ground cherries have the highest protein of any fruit, at 16% or more, due to the thousands of seeds.

    We grow Physallis peruviana, or Peruvian Goldenberries, and are on our second generation of seed. They are easy to save, using the fermentation technique used for tomatoes — simply let them mould, then soak them in water for a day or two, then shake vigorously, and the seeds all separate and sink. You can the pour off the mouldy pulp water, spread the seeds on some fabric supported by a window screen, and keep in a warm, dry place for about a week. Then store the seeds in a cool dry place until planting.

    Our first planting was destroyed by an inexperienced volunteer, so then we simply broadcast the tiny seeds on a tray of potting mix, and probably had THOUSANDS of tiny seedlings to choose from for potting up.

    I’ll have to try the “under bed” technique of fresh storage, but I find putting the husked berries in a food dryer works great, too. The raisin-like fruit has a surprising flavour when sprinkled on a fresh salad, and keeps forever.

    • The deer in our area ate the entire top off of one of my tomato plants before we put up our 6-ft deer netting around the garden! I really wanted to grow ground cherries this year, but didn’t have enough space in the garden (with fence around it) but would have space next year outside the fence… maybe I’ll have to risk it and see if they bother them!

      thanks for the responses everyone!

  8. We have had no trouble with deer, but maybe that’s because they find so many of their favorites in our garden,

  9. My husband and I sell organically grown produce at a local grower’s market here in PA. Last year (our first year of farming) a very nice lady stopped by our booth to ask if we had grown ground cherries. I believe someone at the market directed her to our booth as we grew and sold tomatillos, which look very similar. I had never heard of a ground cherry before and decided to investigate. This year I saw Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherries in the SSE catalog (nearly everything we grow comes from SSE) and ordered the seeds. The plants were a little slow to start, but are now growing beautifully and putting off quite a few ground cherries. Last week I put a few out for our market customers to try. Almost noone had ever heard of ground cherries. You should have seen their faces when they popped one into their mouth!!! Everyone LOVED them. They are delicious. I would say sweet with a bit of a tropical fruit taste. We took more to market this week and sold out within the first hour. I am looking forward to sharing your story and recipe for ground cherry pie with folks down at the market. Thank you SSE for another wonderful heirloom.

    • It would be well worth your time to try the variety Cossack Pineapple ground cherry. You will fall in love with them. First time we had this variety was in Decorah at the farm’s tomato tasting. Just fantastic. And tastes like pineapple. It’s nice to see them coming back slow but sure. It’s a taste from the past that will be lost if we don’t work at it.

  10. I love ground cherries but whenever I’ve tried to grow them (Aunt Molly’s), they haven’t amounted to much. Do they prefer a certain type of soil or what?

  11. Jamee Cook says:

    I believe that I have ground cherries growing on the side of my house and near my tomato and watermelon plants. I’m having a little bit of difficulty finding out if that is really what they are. I picked up quite a few after they fell from the vines. There are several that are dried out and they do contain a lot of seeds. Some of the dried paper husks have a green colored berry inside and some have a darker brown (both are firm and sticky); and yet others have soft white berries (those look like they are possibly over ripe). The larger berries are approximately 1cm in size. Does that sound like the same thing that you are writing about?

  12. I want to grow ground cherries but I know they take up a fair amount of space, as they sprawl a bit, and my fenced vegetable garden is small. Do I need to grow more than one to get good fruit set? I believe this is the case with the related tomatillo. If the deer truly won’t eat them, I can try growing several outside the fence, but I don’t believe there are very many truly deer-proof plants any more.