Grow Lesser-Known Nightshade Plants: Ground Cherry, Cape Gooseberry, Tomatillo and More

Every knows about potatoes and tomatoes, but give it a go growing the ground cherry, cape gooseberry, tomatillo, or even wonderberry this vegetable garden season.

| May/June 2017

  • Ground cherries are easy to grow and can be used to substitue for many other berries.
    Photo by
  • Use large yields of tomatillos for homemade salsas and condiments that can be frozen or canned.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Tomatillo salsa serves as a delicious substitute for tomato salsa.
    Photo by Janet Horton
  • Ground cherries, also called husk cherries, are sweet-tart; great for baking or snacking.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Purple tomatillos are typically sweeter than the green varieties.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • The fruit of the wonderberry should only be eaten when completely purple and fully ripe.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Wait until purple tomatillos turn purple, when they’ve ripened, and eat them right off the vine.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;

The paradoxical attributes of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae) are well known to most vegetable gardeners. Typically we eat them for their edible fruits, raw and cooked, with one notable exception, the potato, which is eaten for its tubers. The poisonous properties of these plants are well known; or at least we know them sufficiently well to never dream of eating tomato or pepper foliage, and hopefully use extreme caution when encountering an unknown fruit from this family.

But a number of minor Solanaceous plants are well worth growing for their fruits.

There are many species of husk tomato, genus Physalis, mostly native to the Americas, not cultivated and tending to be weeds with undistinguished edible fruits. A few, such as ground cherries and tomatillos, are cultivated, and many selections have been made. What makes Physalis unique is that the fruit is enclosed by its inflated calyx, a husk, and hence the group name “husk tomatoes.”

Ground cherries

At the top of my list is the ground cherry, Physalis pruinosa. Native to North America, this plant has become better known in the last 15 years, but it has been cultivated since Colonial times, harvested by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 18th century, among others. Native Americans in both North and South America used various Physalis for food and medicine. Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary mentions a number of types he had been cultivating since 1725 in England.

The epithet “ground cherries” is used generally to describe many types of Physalis, but these plants are 1 to 2 feet tall but low-sprawling, yielding lots of marble-sized orangish-yellow fruits enclosed in a papery husk. Whether this plant got its name because the plant sprawls close to the ground or most of the ripe fruit end up on the ground is not clear.

Plants can be started indoors in early spring, March to April depending upon where you live, and start yielding around 60 to 70 days after transplant. Self-sown plants, of these and other husk tomatoes, are common and can become weedy. The plants grow relatively fast. Self-sown plants will set some ripe fruit in all but the coldest growing regions. Commercial production is limited because fruits have to be hand picked and the husks removed before eating. They have a unique flavor with a hint of tropical fruit, sweet combined with a bit of tart. They make great fresh eating, are useful for jams and pies, and dry easily for a raisinlike snack.

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