The internet is a great place to gain knowledge. It’s also a bastion for false or misleading information. Sometimes I read something and laugh. Then I wonder how many other people read that same thing and were scared by it. It’s all how the author wants to spin the facts.
I was researching poisonous plants recently and found one that I know is not only edible, but it is also quite good. Ground cherry (Physalis sp.is a member of the potato family, just like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and tomatillo. Ground cherry is a wild tomatillo. The fruits are excellent, provided they haven’t been sprayed by pesticides.
So why do so many sources consider them deadly poisonous? Leaves and stems contain alkaloids that are highly toxic, as is potato foliage. Immature ground cherry berries can cause upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea, but so can many immature fruits.
Eating the proper plant parts at their correct growth stage is a no-brainer for cultivated foods. The fact that something is considered a weed seems to scare some people, and maybe in some cases that’s good. Inadequate education is sometimes worse than none at all.
So where do we find these ground cherries and what do they look like? There are close to 30 different species in the United States and about a third of them grow in Carolina. However, few are present in our area.
Often plants can be found in our gardens or adjacent disturbed places. They tolerate moderate amounts of shade. Wild turkey and other game birds consume the fruits but won’t graze the plants at all.
Ground cherries grow best in well-drained soils with adequate moisture. During drought periods they often drop their fruit. When fully ripe they also do this, hence the name ‘ground cherry.’ Fruits generally ripen in the summer and fall.
Plants have dark green leaves and flowers that are distinctly potato-like. Most species have pentagon shaped yellowish flowers with five fused petals. Usually, there is purplish blush toward the flower centers.
Distinctive fruits are encased in a papery husk, just like tomatillos. Husks are not edible. Though much smaller, berry flavor is mildly sweet like a tomato or tomatillo. Fruits can be harvested before they are completely ripe, but must not be eaten until they soften. Husk color ranges from a light yellowish to orange. Once berries are mature there will be no bitter flavor.
Fruits can be eaten raw or cooked. They can be sweetened and make a great pie filling. They also make a great salsa verde, although the color is more orange and not green. They even can be dried like raisins and used accordingly. Mincemeat lovers can experiment by adding some to their favorite recipe, especially if no currants are available. They also make great jellies and jams or use them fresh in salads.
The biggest challenge in this locale is availability. I rarely see populations of ground cherries like I did in West Virginia. It’s a shame because ripe fruits are not poisonous. We must read deeper than the headlines.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.