Ground-Cherry Pie

You can forage or grow the fixin's for ground-cherry pie, an almost forgotten treat from grandmother's day.
By Laura Boyle
July/August 1981
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A baked ground-cherry pie and bowl of rip ground cherries.
PHOTO: LAURA BOYLE
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When I serve ground-cherry pie to my guests, the very few people who have ever tasted the treat before usually react with remarks like, "Oh, I remember when my grandmother used to make this," or "My great-aunt baked these for special occasions!" However, most folks have never heard of—much less tasted—this delicious fruit. That always astounds me, because ground cherries have been included in our family gardens for at least four generations!

Growing Wild

As a matter of fact, it isn't even necessary to cultivate ground cherries, since they're commonly found in fields, along roadsides, and in open woods and wastelands in every part of the United States except Alaska. (Not long ago I discovered a patch of the wild fruit on a grassy embankment just two blocks from my Minnesota home.)

These fast-growing species of the genus Physalis are also known as husk tomatoes, tomatilloes, strawberry tomatoes, bladder cherries, and poppers (the Chinese Lantern is a popular, non-edable ornamental variety). They belong to the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, tobacco, and nightshade.

The plants, while widespread, are usually not very abundant in the wild, so to assure a big harvest it's best to cultivate them from seed, which can be ordered from L.L. Olds Seed Company or De Giorgi Company .

Expect this garden crop—which prefers medium-dry soil—to sprout early and grow rapidly. It quickly puts out yellow flowers with brown or purple centers, and will continue to bloom and bear until the first frost. Around July, the fruit (which develops in a husk) will begin to drop to the ground and—even though it's not fully ripe when it does so—you should gather the cherries as they fall, since they're favorites of many animals and birds.

Inside the husk you'll find a small berry about half an inch in diameter with a tomato-like skin that, when ripe, has a sweet flavor similar to that of a strawberry. The color of the mature cherry will vary from species to species: It may be yellow, red, purple, or brown. And (again, according to the species in question) it can be poisonous when green, so be sure to let the fruit ripen in the husk until it's soft and sweet. (I have often stored the unhusked cherries for months. In fact, I was once able to prepare a fresh ground-cherry pie for Christmas dinner!)

Enjoyable Eating

I think husk tomatoes are as tasty as any fruit when simply served with cream and sugar, or with a good dry cereal. They're also a delicious addition to vanilla ice cream, and can be preserved if covered with a syrup made of 1 cup of sugar, 2 cups of water, and a little lemon juice, simmered until tender, and frozen.

To prepare a ground-cherry jam, crush 4 cups of fully ripe fruit so that each berry is broken, add lemon juice and a package of pectin, bring the mixture to a boil, stir in 4 cups of sugar, and reboil the jam for 1 minute. (The spread is a fine topping for buckwheat pancakes!)

But my favorite way, by far, to eat ground-cherries is in a pie. To make this festive dish, combine 2 cups of sugar with 2 tablespoons of flour and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon. Then, add 4 cups of husked, ripe cherries, 2 tablespoons of melted butter or margarine, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Pour the filling into a 9" unbaked pie crust, cover it with another sheet of dough, cut a few slits in the top for venting, and bake it at 350°F for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

As Grandma knew, this pie will turn even an ordinary meal into a very special occasion!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Folks who'd like to avoid using white sugar in the foregoing recipes can substitute honey to taste and thicken with cornstarch or—for jam—"Magic Pectin."

Remember, never forage any wild plants without the aid of a local expert and/or a good field guide.


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Post a comment below.

 

Cornfield Craziness
8/10/2011 9:29:49 AM
I really enjoyed this article. I planted ground cherries this year for the first time and they did excellent. I just posted a video of them today and was looking for a pie recipe and came across this article and enjoyed it. Thanks!

jeanne_13
9/18/2009 1:19:17 PM
so excited to find this article on ground cherries. i found them growing wild in my garden. i looked high and low to find out what they are.

CS Chipps
8/14/2009 8:19:58 AM
Yes, They do ripen beautifully of the stem. I had not known enough to cage them and they all flopped over on me. When I went to tie them up a great many of the still green ones fell off. I dutifully gathered them up and brought them inside and they ripened perfectly in a few days. I find they taste more like smoky pineapple than anything else to me, minus the tartness. They also reseed extensively so I do my best to rake up any little windfalls at the end of the season.

tofupants
9/13/2008 2:18:08 PM
i'm growing ground cherries for the first time this year, and sanza's question got me thinking about how i'll harvest unripe fruits at the end of the season. i think it would be best to leave them on the plant until the leaves are damaged by frost, then harvest all but the smallest fruits. i'm thinking that the fruits won't be damaged by a light frost as easily as the rest of the plant will. the husks will surely act to protect them a great deal as well. after that, i'll bring them inside and leave them in tray to see how many ripen. there's no hurry because they last for a couple months if left in their husks.

Sanza
9/7/2008 6:48:11 PM
I live up in NE central Alberta, Canada and wonder if the ground cherries can be picked before they fall off the plant and ripened in the house. Our season seems to be way too short for them even tho I have picked about a pint off the ground already.

jackie_12
7/1/2007 3:46:13 PM
THANK YOU FOR THIS WONDERFUL RECIPE.I REMEMBER EATING THESE LITTLE THINGS AT GRANNYS WHEN I WAS YOUNG,AND THEY DO GROW.I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO GROW THEM BUT NEVER GOT MY DEAR GRANNYS RECIPE BEFORE SHE PASSED ON. NOW I HAVE IT. THANK YOU JACKIE CARROLL POLO,IL








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