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Cheers to the ground cherry

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When my family and I went on vacation, a good friend volunteered to water my garden while we were away. On our trip, she texted me a photo of one of the plants, asking, “What are those lantern-like thingies?”

She was referring to the fruits dangling underneath the leaf canopy of a sprawling plant in the middle of my raised bed. Shaped like upside-down teardrops, with ribbed, papery husks enclosing a tiny yellow fruit, they’re ground cherries.

No, they are not cherries that grow on the ground. Related in the Physalis family to tomatillos, ground cherries are small—the husks are less than an inch in diameter, and the fruit is even tinier—but are packed with an unusual, earthy flavor. Some say it’s a mix between a tomato and a pineapple!

They are easiest to grow from seedlings and are extremely hardy in our zone. If you find seedlings at your favorite greenhouse, remember that wherever you plant them, they will return every year. Three years ago, I wanted to make room for other plants, and I ripped out all the ground cherry plants—or so I thought. They still grew back. In early spring this year I turned over all the soil in my bed and mixed in compost, and they STILL returned.

That hardiness also makes them fairly foolproof. The plants are relatively short (maxing out at two feet) but they tend to sprawl—although their little cupped flowers are so cute, you can forgive their intrepidity. When the fruiting begins, it’s interesting to watch the tiny green husks grow.

It might be tempting to pick them off their branches, but if you do, be prepared for a pucker. Ground cherries literally fall off their branches when they are ripe and sweet enough to eat (hence their name). It becomes a neat scavenger hunt each morning to find the pale beige husks scattered around the soil beneath the umbrella-like leaves. Those husks also protect the fruit inside, so you don’t need to worry about dirt! And any missed husks will skeletonize over time, revealing the fruit within their net-like remains.

Your eyes won’t be the only ones watching them ripen, however. As the husks mature, you may need to fence the plants off from chipmunks and other field friends who may love ground cherries even more than we do.

As you collect the ground cherries, slip them out of their husks and store them in the fridge, where they’ll keep for several weeks. Once you’ve collected a cupful or two, you can make a jam, a salsa, a fruit crisp—that special pineapple/tomato flavor lends itself to a slew of harvest-themed recipes. Or you can enjoy that unusual taste raw. Be prepared for the seeds: they’re so teeny-tiny that you probably won’t mind them, but do take note if you have an issue with seeds.

I made an easy jam that I used as a glaze for grilled chicken. There’s enough naturally occurring pectin in the ground cherries that all I needed was sugar, lemon, and water. To be totally honest, I only gathered one cupful (darn those chipmunks!) so I used a third of a cup of water. As long as you keep that three-to-one ratio, you’re as golden as those little gems.

Ground Cherry Jam/Glaze

  • 3 cups husked ground cherries
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • A squeeze of lemon

Add the ground cherries to a medium saucepan over low heat.

Add lemon juice and stir until most of the ground cherries have burst, similar to cranberries.

Pour the sugar over it all and stir it in well; increase heat to medium.

Stir constantly for about 15 minutes until the mixture thickens to a jam-like consistency.

You can divide the jam now and use half of it like a traditional jam and the remainder for a glaze.

To make the glaze, reheat the jam in the pan and dilute with water, a tablespoon at a time, until you have a spreadable glaze. Brush glaze on chicken about halfway through grilling.

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