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Ground cherries provide sweet treat

Every year I try something new in my veggie garden and this description caught my attention: What tastes like a cherry tomato injected with mango and pineapple juice and looks like an orange pearl encased in a miniature paper lantern?

That would be Physalis pruinose, aka ground cherry.

They are included in the nightshade family and should not be mistaken for a tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) because of their papery husks. They also are known as cape gooseberries, husk cherries and are grown as annuals in areas that experience winter freezes. They are closely related to tomatillos.

Ground cherry flowers are bell shaped white to yellow and the fruits grow inside of lantern shaped husks that turn from green to tan and take on a papery texture when the berry inside is ripe. They come by their name from the fact the fruit falls to the ground when ripe.

Plants should be spaced 3 feet apart as they tend to sprawl. Ground cherries pollinate themselves, so small-spaced gardens or containers can enjoy this crop, even if they only have one plant.

You can plant transplants directly into prepared garden, start seeds indoors or even try direct sowing. It’s recommended starting seeds indoors rather than direct sowing. They have a low germination rate, so plant more than you need. Thin when seedlings become established.

Start your seeds six to eight weeks before your last frost. Plant seedlings two to four weeks after your last frost. Harden off your plants before transplanting them into a sunny location. Mulching your plants makes harvesting fruit easier. I recommend netting them to deter birds beating you to harvest.

Starting in July and August, you’ll know it’s time to harvest when your fruit falls to the ground. You need to leave green husked fruit on plant to ripen as green fruit of the ground cherry plant are toxic as they include calyx and if ingested cause gastrointestinal upset.

When putting garden to bed for the winter, you can harvest unripen berries in their husks and store them at room temperature in a single layer. For longer storage of ripe fruit make sure to keep them unwashed in their husks in a cool spot like your refrigerator or basement.

While working in your garden, you can just unwrap them and eat like cherry tomatoes. Other ways to use your husked and rinsed fruit is to chop into a salsa, bake into a pie, make jam. Dehydrating them concentrates the flavor to use in muffins, cookies or trail mix. By placing cleaned fruit on baking sheet, freezing them, then storing them in a container in freezer you can have fresh fruit all winter.

This sounds like a win-win project to me, so I’ll sign off now so I can locate some ground cherry seeds.

To learn more about growing ground cherries, go to http://go.osu.edu/groundcherry.

Baytos is an Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

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