Of my dogs, Frappy is the baddest, especially during gardening season. I dig trenches and lay seed potatoes in them. By the time I'm ready to cover the trench, Frappy, who's been walking behind me with a bored look, has eaten half the potatoes. She's also the first to recognize that the strawberries have ripened - and I get half-eaten berries.
She likes ground cherries too. Here, again, she's fast to notice that they're ripe and start eating them. Lucky thing they fall off the vine when ready or she'd pull the plants out of the ground. Also lucky that they're so plentiful. Lucky, because I like them too.
Ground cherries look like a cross between cherry tomatoes and tomatillos. Like the latter, they're wrapped in a papery husk. Like the former, they're sweet, though in a different way. Some say they taste like pineapple. Others talk gooseberry. Whatever the case, they can be eaten raw, added to salads or cooked into jams, jellies, salsa, condiments or pies. Easy to grow, they add flavor and color to your summer dishes.
Physalis in Latin, ground cherries are native to warmer climes, where they can be grown as perennials. Here, seedlings are available from a few Farmers' Market vendors - or you can start them yourself, as you would tomatoes, 60 days before the last frost date. Varieties include Pineapple, Goldies and Aunt Molly, among others. Members of the nightshade family, they're not very picky about soil type and do well in poor dirt as well as pots. The plants aren't very tall but they tend to spread out.
If you start them yourself, plant the ground cherry seeds in flats or small pots filled with seedling starting mix. Cover with a quarter inch of soil and press down firmly. Water the seeds thoroughly and keep them in a humid spot in the house to help sprouting. You can cover the flat loosely with a plastic bag to help keep them moist - the top of the soil should be moist at all times.
When the seeds have sprouted, move the flat to a sunny window or place them two inches below a grow light and water daily. Before planting them outdoors, harden the plants off by placing them outside in a shady area for a few hours each day, gradually allowing them to get more sun. Plant the seedlings after the danger of frost is past. Place them in a hole and cover up to the first set of true leaves in an area that gets full sun. Provide lots of water until they start to ripen, for less moisture at this time will make for healthier, sweeter fruit.
It's a good idea to stake the plants or create a rope fence around them to keep them upright and disease-free. Otherwise ground cherries are apt to crawl along the ground, as their name suggests. They're ready to harvest when the outer husk has started to open and the ground cherry is orange-yellow.
One clever method is to plant them on a tall mound with black plastic sheeting as a mulch. Since the fruit falls off the plant when it's fully ripe, the cherries slide down the slope and pile up by the plant. However, bad dogs are not the only ones interested in this fruit, and birds and squirrels are likely to snatch them too.
The easiest way to enjoy ground cherries is to simply pop them into your mouth! Toss the tasty little things into salads or use them as edible garnish. Most likely you'll have more than you can use right away. Dry them as you would tomatoes, and you'll have interesting dried fruit in winter. Or cook them.
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Ground Cherry Chutney
There are many recipes for ground cherry jams, jellies and pies, but an easy option is to try a chutney:
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup sliced onion
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup apple cider
- 1 cup ground cherries
- Salt & pepper, to taste
Caramelize a cup of sugar by cooking it with two tablespoons water. When it gets syrupy, add the sliced onion, garlic and apple cider. Let the mix boil for a few minutes, then add the ground cherries. Let the fruit cook through, add salt and pepper, let the chutney cool, then keep it refrigerated. Once you've made the basic recipe, try adding various herbs from your garden, a bit of lemon, lime or orange juice, crushed ginger, etc.