Friday, January 29, 2010

Ground Cherry

Last night I watched as a half inch of snow fell in ten minutes. It was like someone flipped the blizzard switch on and then off again.

I'm a bit relieved at having the ground put safely under its cover of snow. When I can see the dirt, I long to grow things. Such mid-winter lust is impractical and leads to dangerously impromptu seed and plant orders.

So, back to reminiscing about the last growing season.

This plant is manna from the gods. It's a type of ground cherry. Specifically "clammy ground cherry, a.k.a. Physalis heterophylla. Clammy ground cherry is in the nightshade family; i.e. tomatoes, potatoes, deadly nightshade. . . did I say deadly nightshade? Surprisingly, many of our standard garden veggies are related to deadly nightshade (which incidentally is a non-native weed around here). The plants in this family are all poisonous, with the edible parts of the garden varieties being the exception. (So folks, don't make a salad from tomato leaves.)

Clammy ground cherry is most closely related to tomatillo, and like tomatillo, the fruit is a berry that grows inside of a papery husk.




This is what the plant looked like in early October, when laden with fruit.

The plant itself grows no higher than knee-high. It has fuzzy potato-like leaves. It is unclear whether the patch in our yard was planted by a previous owner, or whether it volunteered.



Did I forget to mention that this plant is native? It is one of the few veggie-garden-worthy native plants I have yet encountered. *And* it is perennial! In that narrow place where ecosystem gardeners and permaculturists can agree, this plant is a winner.

For fear that I might be overblowing the awesomeness of this plant, let me point out the downsides. The biggie is that clammy ground cherry is a perennial. Once it it planted, it is hard to be rid of. It spreads far and wide, and no matter how much you yank it, it'll keep popping up, even dozens of feet away. In addition to that, it's not the sort of pretty plant that you would likely want among your showy flowers. I planted some in a front flower bed experimentally, and I'm sure I'll be yanking them for years to come. But I will also be transplanting some to my lawn-meadow, where their unkillability will be an asset.

Lastly, the fruit may be poisonous when unripe, so you should take care to eat them only when they are yellow.

But back to the good stuff! Here is my late-October harvest:





Did I mention that this plant is hard to kill? This harvest was picked after a summer of yanking up ground cherry plants. I had assumed that, like last year, the whole crop would be withered and rotten inside of their husks. I had given up on ground cherries and was instead trying to keep these plants from waging war with the asparagus and tomatoes. The above harvest came from a surprisingly small number of plants.

Oh, those fruits make my mouth water now! They have a flavor that is somewhere between tomato and pineapple. The outside of the yellow berry is a little sticky to the touch, which is where it gets the name "clammy". The fruits stayed fresh in their husks for weeks after I picked them, and indeed, the unripe ones seemed to ripen up over that time.

Rumor has it that these berries make an excellent pie. But I wouldn't know, because I ate them all.

6 comments:

Carole said...

Michelle, I love how you are able to objectively look at both sides of everything. I love the obvious enjoyment you take in describing your plants. Thank you! Also, thanks for the shout-out.

MAT kinase said...

My lab grew ground cherries this past summer. The fruit seem to continue to ripen for weeks after the husk dries out, which I was surprised by. I'll be measuring their alkaloid content in the next few weeks - might shed some light on whether the immature fruit are poisonous...

Michelle said...

Thanks Carole, and my pleasure! MAt - oh my goodness, I would absolutely love to hear what you learn about these! Thanks a bunch! (And enjoy your tasty leftovers!)

Norris said...

Hi Michelle,

I came across your blog in a search for Physalis heterophylla seeds--I'd love to experiment with a perennial ground cherry (The P. peruviana so far hasn't overwintered here in Portland, OR.) Did you happen to save any seeds, or have some forgotten rotted/dried out husks with seeds in them? I have seeds of a few interesting perennial veggies I could trade you... If you're interested, you can email me at gmail, username norristh

I also have an infrequently updated blog with some gardening stuff at http://farmerscrub.blogspot.com

Thanks!
Norris

Michelle said...

Oooh, hello Norris! I have seeds and I was wondering what to do with them! I'll send you an e-mail. . .

Pam said...

I, too, found your blog on a search for seeds. Would love to trade if you've still got some available!

Pam