Ground Cherry Plant: How To Grow Cape Gooseberries
They’re on the ground, but they’re not cherries! This unique fruit is in the nightshade family, offering a little sweetness and umami flavor. Some varieties are sweeter than others, and the “Aunt Molly’s” cultivar is reminiscent of a pineapple, so you’ll definitely want to try out more than one ground cherry plant to see if there’s one you like.
Unlike the tomatillo plant that ground cherries closely resemble and are related to, ground cherries grow close to the ground. Ripe ground cherries will fall out of their husks, so you’ll have to harvest them from the ground. You’ll probably want to heavily mulch the area if you don’t want your fruit on the dirt!
Ground cherries are a unique addition to any garden that you should try out if you haven’t already. Let’s take a look at how to grow these plants so you can start finding the varieties you like best.
Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Ground cherries, cape gooseberries, strawberry tomatoes, husk cherries, husk tomatoes, goldenberries|
|Scientific Name||Physalis pruinosa|
|Days to Harvest||60-75 days|
|Water||1 inch per week|
|Soil||Loamy, well-draining, pH of 6.0-6.8|
|Fertilizer||Balanced all-purpose fertilizer as needed|
|Pests||Colorado potato beetles, cutworms, flea beetles, ground cherry leaf beetles, mites, tobacco hornworms, tomato hornworms, whiteflies|
|Diseases||Early blight, verticillium wilt|
All About Ground Cherry Plants
The paper husks of ground cherries may make you think of Chinese lanterns, but don’t confuse them with Physalis alkekengi, the plant actually called Chinese lantern! The ground cherry, Physalis pruinosa, is related to the tomatillo. Its scientific name means “bladder,” which refers to the outer husk. Lanterns are certainly a better visual!
The plant is native to the Americas, from the north to the south. They’re perennial plants that will come back each year in USDA hardiness zones 8 and higher and can be grown as an annual in cooler climates. Start the seeds indoors in late winter, transplant them outside in the spring, and you’ll get fruit in late summer and into fall.
The plant is indeterminate and will continue growing until it dies. Unlike tomatoes and tomatillos, ground cherries stay close to the ground, so you’ll need some space to let them sprawl.
People grow this plant for the ripe fruit that falls to the ground. Every variety tastes a little different, but you can expect some sweetness from each one. Some varieties will seem savory, and others may taste like fruit with a hint of vanilla! You can use ground cherry fruits in pies, salsa, jams, and other dishes you might use tomatoes or fruit in.
Types of Ground Cherries
The Virginia ground cherry is native to the northeastern United States and is one of the few varieties that is a perennial down to zone 6. It’s slightly sweet, making it a decent option for jams and pies.
Aunt Molly’s is another sweet variety that tastes a bit like pineapple. The husks are much rounder than other varieties.
Physalis peruviana is known by several nicknames, like goldenberry, Poha berry, Inca berry, and Peruvian ground cherry. It’s not as sweet as the Aunt Molly’s variety, and it has a taller growth habit, reaching up to 4 feet. The husk comes to a point at the end.
Often called Goldie, Physalis pubescens has smaller fruit than other varieties, but it’s quite sweet and pairs well with chocolate.
Physalis grisea is often nicknamed the strawberry tomato or the grey ground cherry. It’s not as common as other varieties, but it’s fun to grow because the tiny little hairs make it look grey.
Planting Ground Cherries
Start ground cherry seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost. The plants need a long growing season, so it’s good to get a head start. Plant the seeds ⅛ inch deep and lightly cover them. The soil should be 70-90°F (21-32°C), and should stay moist to help the seeds germinate.
The germination process should take 1-3 weeks. You can keep your seedlings in a sunny window or use a grow light to make sure they get at least 8 hours of light each day.
Transplant seedlings outside after all danger of frost has passed. If you want to move them to a container, choose something with a drainage hole so excess water can drain out. For best results, the container should be at least 8 inches deep and 12 inches wide.
If you want to plant your ground cherries outside, space them 1 ½ – 2 feet apart so they can have plenty of room to grow. Give them a thick layer of mulch to retain soil moisture, but make sure the soil is well-draining.
Now that you know how to start ground cherry plants, let’s learn how to keep them alive and happy. It’s easy if you’re able to give them the right conditions.
Sun and Temperature
Ground cherries thrive when they receive about 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. A little shade during the hottest part of the day will help in hot climates.
Some varieties are best suited for hot climates like zones 8 or higher, while some varieties can grow as low as zone 4. Regardless of which kind you have, most ground cherries aren’t tolerant of cool weather and will need to be protected if the temperatures dip below 55°F (13°C).
While they do like warm weather, they start to struggle when temperatures exceed 90°F (32°C).
Water and Humidity
Ground cherries usually need about 1 inch of water per week, but this can vary based on sunlight, rainfall, and how much water drains from your soil. You’ll likely need to water once per day in the peak of summer.
They don’t really have any requirements for humidity, but fungal diseases may spread easier if the plants stay damp.
Give your ground cherries loamy soil that’s rich in nutrients, and you won’t see them complain too often! Add organic matter like compost or leaf mold in the spring to give your plants a good start.
If there are enough nutrients in the soil, you may not have to fertilize them. They like slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8.
Ground cherries can be heavy feeders, which is why it’s so important to start them out with nutritious soil. But if you find them needing an extra boost throughout the season, give them a balanced all-purpose fertilizer.
You can feed them every 3-4 weeks until they start fruiting, and then you can switch to every 6 weeks or so. Give them less nitrogen while they’re fruiting so they’ll focus on growing fruit instead of leaves.
Pruning & Training
Ground cherry plants don’t require pruning to stay healthy, but you may find them easier to manage if you do since they’re indeterminate.
Since they grow low to the ground, you may want to use a trellis to make them stand a little taller. However, ripened fruit fall off the plant, so you may not want them standing too tall!
The easiest way to propagate ground cherries is by seed. You can save seeds by removing them from the fruit, washing away the fruit flesh, and allowing them to dry completely before you store them.
Much like tomatoes, you can create new plants from cuttings. Cut a stem that’s 4-6 inches long, dip it in rooting powder, and let it sit in a growing medium until roots appear. Once roots have grown, you can plant them in a container or outdoors.
Harvesting and Storing
Once you’ve successfully grown a ground cherry plant, you can start harvesting! Let’s look at how to harvest and store them.
You’ll know to start harvesting ground cherries when you see them on the ground! Another sign is when the outer husk is open and completely dry. You can give your plants a gentle shake to knock ripe fruits off the plants. If they drop off with that little tap or shake, they’re ready to eat.
Like other plants in the nightshade family, ground cherries have slight toxicity when they’re green, and eating too many can result in an upset stomach. If you’re not sure when your cherries are ripe, only harvest the fallen fruit. Ripe ground cherries should not be green in color, and the husk will be dry and paper-like.
You can store ground cherries in the fridge if you harvested too many to eat at once. Fruits that are still in the husk can last for up to 3 months, while bare fruit will last up to 10 days. If you harvest unripe fruit, you can let them ripen on the kitchen counter for a few days.
If you need to store them long-term, you can freeze, dehydrate, or can them. To freeze them, place them on a cookie sheet and let them sit in the freezer for a few hours. This will prevent them from sticking together. Once they’re frozen, you can move them to a freezer bag and store them for several months.
To dehydrate them, use a dehydrator or an oven. Use the lowest heat setting and let them dry out for several hours. They should last a few months once they’re completely dry.
Canning is also a popular method. You can store whole fruits or turn them into jam before canning them. This is an excellent way to store large amounts of fruit that should last you until next year.
You may run into a few problems while growing ground cherries, so let’s take a look at a few of them. Fortunately, many of them can be prevented!
Temperatures are likely to be one of your biggest problems with this plant. You’ll want to grow them when the temperatures are between 55°F and 90°F (13°C and 32°C) since anything cooler or hotter than this will damage or kill them. Use a greenhouse to regulate temperatures or use frost cloth and shade cloths as needed.
Water may also be another problem. If the plants seem a little wilted, they probably need more water. They need at least 1 inch per week or likely a little more on hot days. Make sure your soil retains moisture while also letting extra water drain away.
If your plants are stressed by temperature, water, nutrients, or other factors, you may notice fewer fruits, and plants may drop unripened fruit. Correcting the problems should be enough to make your plant happy again.
You might see various beetles on your plants, including Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, and ground cherry leaf beetles. These pests eat up plants, including leaves, roots, stems, and fruit. You can pick them off by hand or use neem oil to kill the larvae, or you can look for a pesticide made specifically for beetles.
There are plenty of worms to find on your ground cherries, including cutworms, tobacco hornworms, and tomato hornworms. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) works very well to handle many worm species; coat the leaves of your plants with this soil bacteria to reduce pest pressures from various caterpillar larvae.
Mites and whiteflies may also be a problem. Washing them off with water is the easiest way to get rid of them, but neem oil also works well.
Ground cherries are generally pretty disease resistant, but they may get early blight or verticillium wilt, which are both fungal diseases. You’ll notice them when you see brown or yellow spots on leaves and stems.
You can’t cure most fungal diseases, so remove infected plants as soon as you see them. You can prevent them by applying a fungicide before the diseases appear and by making sure the climate is just right. Warm, humid temperatures make it easy for fungi to spread, so give your plants plenty of airflow if humidity is a problem.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do ground cherries come back every year?
A: Most varieties are perennial in zones 8 or higher, although there are some that are perennials in zone 6.
Q: How poisonous are ground cherries?
A: Ground cherry leaves and unripened fruits are unsafe to eat because they contain solanine (the same natural chemical that can turn the sides of sun-exposed potatoes green). Only eat fully ripened fruit to avoid getting a stomach ache.
Q: Can you eat ground cherries?
A: Yes! You can eat fresh fruit or use them in jams and desserts.
Q: Are tomatillos and ground cherries the same thing?
A: Tomatillos and ground cherries are both in the Physalis family, but they’re not quite the same. Tomatillos tend to be much tarter and have a more green-tomato flavor, whereas ground cherries are tart-sweet and lean more toward a fruity flavor.
Q: Where is the best place to plant ground cherries?
A: The best place to plant ground cherries is in a sunny location with well-draining soil.
Q: Can ground cherries survive winter?
A: Ground cherries can’t survive winter because they don’t like temperatures under 55°F (13°C).
Q: What is ground cherry good for?
A: Ground cherries are great in many recipes, both sweet and savory. Experiment with different varieties to find something you like!
Q: Do deer like ground cherries?
A: Ground cherries are typically considered to be deer-resistant.