Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are not a very well known fruit, but they are easy to grow in the garden. Their small, yellow-orange fruits have a sweet-tart flavor that is similar to pineapple with a faint background flavor of tomato. In fact, ground cherries are part of the same plant family, Solanaceae, as tomatoes. But despite their common name, they are not closely related to true cherries (Prunus spp.). Ground cherry plants look like small shrubs with bright green leaves that have toothed edges. They sport yellow flowers in the summer before bearing fruit in the late summer to early fall that’s wrapped in a papery husk, much like their relative tomatillos.
Ground cherry plants can either be started indoors about six to eight weeks before your projected last frost date or outdoors after the threat of frost has passed. As annuals, they have a fast growth rate and complete their life cycle in one season.
|Botanical Name||Physalis pruinosa|
|Common Names||Ground cherry, husk tomato, strawberry tomato|
|Mature Size||1–3 ft. tall and wide|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, well-drained|
|Hardiness Zones||4–8 (USDA)|
|Native Areas||Central America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people and animals (except the fruit)|
Ground Cherry Care
You can easily grow ground cherries in traditional garden beds, raised beds, or containers. Just make sure any container is at least 8 inches deep to allow for the plant's fairly large root system. Providing ample sunlight and maintaining even soil moisture are key when caring for these plants.
The plant gets its common name, ground cherry, because you typically harvest its fruits from the ground and not straight off the plant. Each plant produces around a pint of fruit per growing season. When the fruit is ripe, the husk turns from green to tan and drops from the plant with the fruit still inside. Some growers place a cloth or containers under their plants to catch the fruits and make harvesting easier. Try to pick up the fallen fruit often. If it's left on the ground and breaks open, you might have ground cherry seedlings popping up everywhere.
Ground cherries do best in full sun, meaning at least six hours of sunlight on most days. They can tolerate a bit of shade, but this will likely cause them to produce fewer fruits.
These plants aren’t overly picky about their soil type. But they grow best in a well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter with a slightly acidic soil pH.
Ground cherries like fairly moist soil and need approximately an inch of water per week. Dry conditions can cause the plants to drop their blossoms without producing fruit. So plan to water at least weekly if you haven't gotten any rainfall—and potentially more often in very hot weather if the soil is drying out.
Temperature and Humidity
Ground cherries have good heat tolerance within their growing zones. However, frost can kill the plants. So if you live in a cooler climate and frost threatens your ground cherries before the fruits have ripened, cover your plants with row covers or even a large piece of fabric to protect them. Humidity typically isn’t an issue for these plants.
Ground cherries thrive in soil that is amended with compost. If you have poor soil, you can mix in an organic fertilizer when planting made specifically for fruits and vegetables.
Is the Ground Cherry Toxic?
While the ripe ground cherry fruits are edible, the rest of the plant—the leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and even fruit husks—are toxic to people and animals when ingested.
Symptoms of Poisoning
Symptoms of poisoning in both people and animals include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, irregular heart rate, disorientation, dilated pupils, low body temperature, and even death. Contact a medical professional as soon as possible if you suspect poisoning.
How to Grow Ground Cherries From Seed
To start your ground cherries from seed indoors, plant the seeds about 1/4 deep in an organic seed starting mix. It can be helpful to plant them in biodegradable seed cells that you can then just plant in your garden without having to transplant the seedlings.
Keep your seeds in a warm spot that remains between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and make sure the soil stays consistently moist but not soggy. The seeds should germinate in about two weeks. Keep the seedlings by a sunny window and maintain soil moisture until your area is past its last frost date. Then, you can take your seedlings outdoors for progressively longer stretches for about a week to acclimate to the direct sunlight before planting them in your garden.
To start plants outdoors, wait until your spring temperatures are reliably warm. Then, plant the seeds about 1/4 deep in your garden soil, and lightly water every day to keep the soil moist until they sprout.
Ground Cherry Varieties
There are a few varieties of ground cherries, including:
- 'Aunt Molly’s': This is the most commonly available variety and has an upright, bushy growth habit.
- 'Cossack Pineapple': This variety has a distinct tangy sweet flavor much like a pineapple.
- 'Goldie': This variety is quite similar to ‘Aunt Molly’s’ except that it is slightly more low-growing and spreading.