Ground cherries – which go by a number of names: husk tomatoes, cape gooseberries, strawberry tomatoes and, my personal favorite, poha – are a unique nightshade native to the Americas.
We have been growing Aunt Molly ground cherries for a number of years in our family garden. We tend to treat them as an annual here in Zone 6. Though initially we grew starter plants that we purchased from the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, we now plant the heirloom seeds that we saved from those original plants a number of years ago. We begin planting our seeds indoors in early March. It never ceases to amaze me what a healthy and productive plant can emerge from such a tiny seed.
Unripe ground cherry
As hardy relatives of tomatoes and tomatillos, they produce miniature fruits that are suspended on their branches in green husks that resemble a Chinese lantern. If the fruit is eaten immature, while the husk is still green or yellow, it is similar to a green tomato in taste. The trick is to allow the husk to turn tan or brown, at which point it will fall off the plant to rest on the soil below. I have read a number of descriptions in regards to the flavor of the fruit, which is not much bigger than a blueberry. It has been described as having a pineapple flavor, tasting like vanilla and even mango. It is safe to say it has a unique, sweet taste all its own and is absolutely delicious.
As mentioned earlier when ripe it will fall off of the plant. It will remain perfectly edible for nearly three weeks in its husk. If you remove the husk, you can store it in the refrigerator for another two weeks. An easy method of long-term storage is to simply wash the fruit off, put it on a cookie tray in the freezer and once the fruit is frozen, put it in a ziplock bag until you have need of it.
Ripened fruit perfect for pie.
Saving the seeds can be a little tricky because they are so small. I tend to cut the fruit in half and then, with the sharp point of a knife, scoop the insides out onto a paper plate. I allow the seeds to dry right on the plate and then place them in an envelope in a cool dry place until the following growing season arrives. I have always had very high germination rates, well over 90 percent.
Ground cherries can be eaten right out of the husk; in fact my children spend the summer raiding the plants growing in our garden. As a parent I am always happy to see this because they are so good for you. They are a fair source of niacin, which is vitamin B3. They also contain vitamin C, a helpful antioxidant, and vitamin A as well. They can also be added to salads and rice dishes. My personal favorite is ground cherry pie. My wife uses an old Mennonite recipe that is simple and superbly delicious and I will gladly pass it along to you.
Old Mennonite Ground Cherry Pie Recipe
2 1/2 cups ground cherries (frozen or fresh)
1 9-inch pie shell
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons white sugar
2 tablespoon butter
1) Preheat oven to 425 F or 220 C.
2) Wash ground cherries and place in unbaked pie shell.
3) Mix brown sugar and 1 tablespoon flour and sprinkle over cherries; sprinkle water over top
4) Mix together remaining flour and sugar.
5) Cut butter into flour and sugar until crumbly.
6) Top cherry mixture with crumbs.
7) Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes, reduce temperature to 375 F and continue to bake for 25 minutes.
8) Enjoy every bite.