Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are not very well known, but they are easy to grow in the garden with minimal pest and disease problems. Their small, yellow-orange fruits have a sweet-tart flavor 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, sprawling 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 wrapped in a papery husk, much like their relative tomatillos.
Plant ground cherries in the spring. As annuals, they have a fast growth rate and complete their life cycle in one season. Before planting, note that all parts of ground cherry plants except the fruit are toxic to people and pets.
|Common Name||Ground cherry, husk tomato, strawberry tomato|
|Botanical Name||Physalis pruinosa|
|Plant Type||Annual, fruit, shrub|
|Mature Size||1–3 ft. tall and wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic (6.0 to 6.5)|
|Hardiness Zones||4–8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Central America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people, toxic to pets (except the fruit)|
How to Plant Ground Cherries
When to Plant
The plants can either be started indoors about six to eight weeks before your projected last frost date in the spring or outdoors after the threat of frost has passed.
Selecting a Planting Site
You can easily grow ground cherries in traditional garden beds, raised beds, or containers. Make sure any planting site gets lots of sunlight and has well-drained soil. Check the area for any taller trees and shrubs that might shade your ground cherries too much during the day.
Spacing, Depth, and Support
Ground cherry plants should be spaced at least 2 feet apart. Young plants should be planted at the same depth they were in their previous container. And seeds should be planted only about 1/4 inch deep. A support structure, such as a tomato cage or stakes, can be helpful to prevent the plant from flopping over under the weight of the fruits.
Ground Cherry Care
Ground cherries do best in full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct 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 well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter with a slightly acidic 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. They do best in temperatures of 55 to 65 degrees and can cope with temperatures rising as high as 85 degrees. 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. You can mix in an organic fertilizer specifically for fruits and vegetables when planting if you have poor soil.
Ground cherries self-pollinate and will attract bees and other pollinators to the garden.
Types of Ground Cherries
There are a few varieties of ground cherries, including:
- 'Aunt Molly's': This is the most commonly available variety, and it 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.
Ground Cherry vs. Tomatillo
Ground cherries and tomatillos have similar features. They are both part of the same genus, and their fruits both grow in a papery husk. However, ground cherries are typically smaller than tomatillos. And they are yellow or orange whereas tomatillos are green.
Harvesting Ground Cherries
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 in the late summer and into fall. When the fruit is ripe, the husk dries up, 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 are often used fresh, such as in salads, or cooked in sauces and more. They can keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. They also can be frozen in an airtight container and will stay good for several months.
How to Grow Ground Cherries in Pots
Growing ground cherries in a container allows you to move the plant into sufficient sunlight as needed, as well as to protect it more easily from severe storms that might damage your crop. Be sure to choose a container that is at least 8 inches deep to allow for the plant’s fairly large root system. The container also should have drainage holes. An unglazed clay container is ideal to allow excess soil moisture to escape through its walls.
Propagating Ground Cherries
Ground cherries are typically propagated via seeds. But they also can be grown from cuttings. This is an easy and inexpensive way to start a new plant. The best time to take a cutting is in the late spring to early summer. Here’s how:
- Take a 4- to 6-inch stem cutting, and remove any foliage on the lower half.
- Dip the cut end in rooting hormone.
- Plant the cutting in a small container with drainage holes that’s filled soilless potting mix. Place the cutting in a warm spot with bright, indirect light.
- Keep the growing medium consistently moist but not soggy, and roots should form in a couple weeks. Once you see new growth on the stem, you’ll know it’s ready for transplanting.
How to Grow Ground Cherries From Seed
To start your ground cherries from seed indoors, plant the seeds about 1/4 inch 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, 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 them to the direct sunlight before planting in your garden.
To start plants outdoors, wait until your spring temperatures are reliably warm. Then, plant the seeds about 1/4 inch deep in your garden soil, and lightly water them every day to keep the soil moist until they sprout.
Potting and Repotting Ground Cherries
An organic potting mix made specifically for fruits and vegetables will work well for potting ground cherries. You generally won't have to repot your plant during the growing season unless you are transplanting a young plant in a small container into something larger. If that's the case, plant it at the same depth it was in its previous container, and fill around it with potting mix.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
In general, ground cherry plants are hardier against pests and diseases than tomatoes and tomatillos. However, they still can struggle with some of the same issues as their cousins. Specifically, whiteflies, flea beetles, hornworms, and cutworms might attack the plants, especially if they are weakened during a period of drought. And fungal issues can occur if there’s not good air circulation around the plants. Proper growing conditions can help to prevent many issues.
Are ground cherries easy to grow?
Ground cherries are fairly easy to grow, as long as you provide them with sufficient sunlight and moisture.
How long does it take to grow ground cherries?
Ground cherries grow quickly and will be ready to harvest in the summer after a spring planting.
Can you grow ground cherries indoors?
It's possible to grow ground cherries indoors, but they might need supplemental grow lights if you don't have a bright enough window.