Ground Cherries

ground cherries

I’m sitting at my desk eating ground cherries and doing a little research while trying to pinpoint the fruit’s flavor.

Ground cherries look like small tomatillos. They are gumball-sized fruit covered in a papery husk. They grow in the wild and are considered to be weeds in many areas. I just added them to my list of weeds that I like to eat.

They can also be cultivated. The Hudson Valley Seed Library carries a variety called “Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry.” They describe them as “Irresistible, sweet, and unique—and pre-wrapped by mother nature!”

Many people say the taste is similar to pineapple. It does have a slight tropical flavor, reminiscent of a pawpaw but not as sweet—extra points to anyone who has tasted a pawpaw! It tastes wild to me. Not wild as in crazy, but wild as in untamed. I think it is a lack of cultivation that brings out this flavor.

After I had eaten several unripe, green ones and decided that they taste a bit like a green tomato, I read that the green ones are toxic. Several websites warn not to eat them. My first thought was “Oops.” My second was, “Really?”

Ground cherries are in the genus Physalis in the nightshade family, Solanaceae. In their unripe form, they contain solanine, a toxic alkaloid. This toxin is also found in other nightshades. It’s the green you see on potatoes that have been exposed to light. Guess what else is in that family? Tomatoes. And yes, green tomatoes also carry the toxin (though there is actually a bit of a debate about that). I do tend to peel off the green parts of potatoes but I’m not going to curtail my annual plate of fried green tomatoes.

I couldn’t find anything that says how much solanine is in a green ground cherry but I didn’t feel like I needed to be rushed to the emergency room. Apparently, the amount usually found in food isn’t harmful. Some people are sensitive to it and feel that their arthritis is aggravated by nightshades. If you are worried about the toxin or are particularly sensitive to nightshades, let the cherries ripen first.

You can use ground cherries in both savory and sweet dishes. Use them in place of tomatoes or tomatillos in a salsa, make a spicy chutney or sweet jam. If I don’t eat all of the ones on my desk, I’m going to try a ground-cherry pie next!