Heirloom Nightshade Varieties
Discover the many heirloom nightshade varieties and how to incorporate them in your kitchen garden.
August 21, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom nightshade varieties was taken from chapter 23, “Miscellaneous Nightshades.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom nightshade varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
Miscellaneous Heirloom Nightshade Varieties
‘Chinese Wolfberry’ or ‘Chinese Boxthorn’
Formerly treated as two separate species, Lycium chinense and Lycium halimifolium, but now recognized as one, this woody vine with narrow deciduous leaves is an attractive plant for the kitchen garden fence. The leaves are edible and can be dried for tea, but it is the fruit I find most interesting. Reddish orange, it hangs in clusters resembling barberries. The flavor reminds me of a cross between a sun-dried tomato and a dried cranberry. The dried fruit is excellent in rice, bean, and lentil dishes, and can be used in pickles. The dried berries are popular in Asian cookery and can usually be found in Asian markets. I propagated seed from a few dried berries found in a Vietnamese market in Philadelphia.
In areas of the country that are USDA Zone 8 and warmer, the plant has naturalized and become common on waste ground. In warm climate areas it also tends to sucker more under the ground and thus can become quite invasive. In the South it is known as Matrimony Vine and was first introduced in the area of Charleston during the middle of the eighteenth century. It is a very close relative of the Carolina wolfberry used by native Americans. In the South the plant grows into a large rambling bush that needs support, but in the North it usually dies back to the ground each winter. In Pennsylvania, it requires a protection of mulch over the winter.
The botanical origin of this vegetable is obscure, but it is believed to be a form of the common nightshade that evolved into a distinct species under long cultivation in West African gardens. Because it was raised mostly by blacks in North America, it was not given much notice in early garden literature, other than to lump it together with the wild nightshade, to which it is closely related. It is believed to have come to North America sometime in the late seventeenth century in connection with the slave trade and is now naturalized in parts of the South as well as sections of Kansas and Nebraska. Volga Germans who emigrated from Russia and settled on the Great Plains during the latter part of the nineteenth century incorporated the Garden Huckleberry into their cookery, and many of their descendants still raise it today.
The plants are large and spreading and from a distance vaguely resemble pokeberry bushes. They attain a height of 3 to 4 feet and are resistant to drought. Seed is started indoors like tomatoes, then thinned to pots and hardied off. They can be planted as soon as the threat of frost has passed. One of the old botanical names for this berry was Solanum intrusum, an appropriate name, since it will reseed profusely anywhere it is planted. Birds, however, avoid the fruit.
The black berries measure about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch in diameter and are edible when ripe, although bitter. They are cooked as a vegetable, but most commonly they are prepared in pies and preserves, since sugar greatly improves the taste. It is a taste that one either likes or dislikes. The rotting fruit has a carrion odor that West Africans find appealing and which is present in the dried berries. There I draw the line.
The Garden Huckleberry should not be confused with the Sunberry or Wonderbcrry (Solanum burbankii) introduced by Luther Burbank, ostensibly as a cross between Solanum guineese Lam, and Solanum villosum Dunal. That cross has been questioned, but many seed houses incorrectly equate the Garden Huckleberry with it. The true Garden Huckleberry is also well established in other parts of our hemisphere. The following description from The Tropical Cook Book (1920, 75–76), published by the Ladies’ Club of Herradura in Havana, explains how it is prepared in Cuba:
The plant of the garden huckleberry grows very large here, and, with some cultivation, the berries attain a great size. To get the best flavor they must not be picked until they are very ripe, by which time they will have lost the bright, shiny appearance they have at first. The “mora,” the Cuban name for the wild huckleberry, is to be found in almost any field which has been cultivated at any time. The flavor is similar to that of the huckleberry and is preferred by many people. The berries are very small, but by fertilizing and cultivating, the plants will produce more and larger berries. Both kinds of berries are used a great deal for sauce, and dulces of all kinds, being worthless raw.
The mora referred to here is the common nightshade (Solanum nigrum), with which the garden species is usually confused. The ladies’ club also published a number of recipes for Garden Huckleberry, one of which was commonly served at Frohock’s Cafeteria on O’Reilly Street in Havana. It contains all the necessary chemistry for transforming the berries into a decent confection.
Garden Huckleberry Preserves
Put in the stew pan, cover with cold water and allow it to come to the boiling point. Add a half teaspoonful of baking soda, allow this to boil up, turn off the water and add fresh water. Boil until tender, put through a colander, add a half pound of sugar to a pound of fruit, and enough cornstarch to thicken it. Allow this to boil thoroughly, stirring constantly.
Toward the end of July and continuing right up to the first killing frost, produce stands all over the Pennsylvania Dutch country offer for sale small berries that come from the garden in little tan husks or “lanterns.” Transformed into jellies, jams, pies, indeed, into a host of dishes, these are the so-called groundcherries or Juddekaersche, one of the culinary symbols of Pennsylvania Dutch cookery.
Closely related to the tomato, groundcherries belong to a large genus of plants known as Physalis, and there are many common names for the prolific members of this tribe. This has led to inevitable ambiguities in the scientific classifications of Physalis species and subspecies, confounding plant and food historians alike. Craig C. Dremann’s tract Ground Cherries, Husk Tomatoes, and Tomatillos (1985) attempts to tackle this issue from the standpoint of a seedsman with long experience growing them. I am of the opinion, shared by many, that the Physalis genus is in serious need of reorganization; those of us who grow these plants on a regular basis know that the published botany does not tally with what goes on in the field. Therefore, I shall be rather coy with my nomenclature.
In spite of this, the rich, confusing vocabulary associated with this genus is also proof in itself that a garden plant with so many common designations has obviously been under cultivation for a very long time on the popular level. The late American botanist Oliver Perry Medsger, writing in the 1930s, confirmed this with his observation that groundcherries have been in cultivation in the eastern United States for at least 150 years. The Farm Journal and Progressive Farmer (May 1857, 141) lashed out at the idea that groundcherries were an innovation in any way new to country cooks. The following tirade expresses a common nineteenth-century attitude about the groundcherry outside areas of Pennsylvania Dutch influence.
The “Ground Cherry”
We see that the venders of this worthless thing are still at their old tricks, and with so much craftiness that they deceive the very elect. Our good friend of the Maine Farmer has listened to the humbug tale, and is so far deceived as to “recommend a general trial of it.” Now, Doctor, we have had some experience with this plant—have destroyed thousands in a year as mere pests. Instead of the fruit being, as the pedler represented, “valuable for pies, puddings, and preserves, and making a good wine to boot,” it is not fit to be used for any such purpose, and is not, where even the most ordinary fruits or berries can be had. The whole scheme of selling this “ground cherry” is a cheat.
Thus spake the Boston Cultivator in all its New England blueness, a swipe of arrogance that can be well appreciated by Suzanne Ashworth, who is the groundcherry conservator for Seed Savers Exchange. The Pennsylvania Dutch simply laugh. Through the process of natural hybridizing or intentional selective breeding, a number of strains of groundcherries peculiar to the region have evolved. Seeds from these cultivars have moved to all parts of the United States, indeed, anywhere the Pennsylvania Dutch have settled. For these reasons — and to the chagrin of New Englanders — the groundcherry and its near cousin the husk tomato or tomatillo constitute one of the ethnic symbols of the culture.
Regardless of disagreements over nomenclature or their culinary worth, all botanists and experienced cooks agree that as with tomatoes, the herbaceous parts of groundcherries—the root, stems, leaves, and flowers—are toxic to humans. I am putting this up front because most unripe groundcherries are also toxic to humans to one degree or another and thus should never be given to anyone in the green state. I have seen them served underripe in some very famous restaurants in New York and can only comment that in folk medicine such fruit was considered a powerful emetic, with emphasis on powerful. But, of course, that is New York.
The safe culinary rule with all groundcherries is to harvest them ripe, and that means when the husks fall off the plants. Next, eat them well cooked, such as in catsups, sauces, soups, or pies. The ripe fruit can be eaten raw, but it is better to try one berry first to see whether a reaction occurs. Persons with known allergies to tomatoes should never eat groundcherries or tomatillos. Do not even try them. Most people can enjoy groundcherries without any problems, but for the small minority who do have a sensitivity, the precaution is better than the convalescence.
One of the earliest references to groundcherries surfaced in the journal of Aédée Feuillée (1682–1773), who was sent by the king of France on a botanical expedition to Peru and Chile from 1709 to 1711. The intrepid explorer not only found red currant tomatoes washed up on a beach, he discovered that the locals made a spread for butter and toast: “one makes of it a preserve with an agreeable and refreshing taste, which is given to the sick to restore their appetite” (1713–25, 3:5). This jam was made with the fruit of what is now called Physalis peruviana, a tropical perennial otherwise known as Cape Gooseberry or Poha. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (27:1068) published a scholarly vignette about the berry in 1807, observing that it had already established itself in the Cape of Good Hope, the East Indies, and New South Wales in Australia. The American Garden (1888, 282) complained that the Cape Gooseberry was being offered as something new and valuable when it had been known to Americans for more than a hundred years and was “no better” than a dozen native species found in most parts of the United States. The problem with the Poha is that it is truly tropical at heart and is not likely to come to fruit in many parts of the United States. I have grown it for many years and have rarely gotten more than perfect specimens of the leaves. To obtain fruit, I must overwinter it in tubs.
The true groundcherries of early American kitchen gardens are annuals much better adapted to our untropical growing seasons, since they come to fruit in 65 to 75 days. Historically, there were three types of groundcherries and two types of tomatillos cultivated in my part of the country, not overlooking the fact that several of them were native to the Southwest and thus also a part of the regional cuisine there. Of the groundcherries, there were yellow-, orange-, and bronze-fruited varieties. Of the tomatillos, the most common had green-yellow or purple fruit. The groundcherries have fuzzy leaves, and for this reason they are often described botanically as Physalis pubescens. The tomatillos, or husk tomatoes, have smooth leaves and a different stem structure, as well as a different flower on close examination. They are described botanically as Physalis ixocarpa. There are many other differences between these plants, but the important point for the gardener unfamiliar with them is that the groundcherries I describe here will all cross with one another; thus they are all the same species, whatever we choose to call it. The tomatillos will also cross, but not with the groundcherries. Thus it is better to grow one groundcherry and one tomatillo each season than to battle with the unknown, for their genetics and methods of reproduction are poorly understood. Since the seed will keep for at least five years, it is possible to alternate varieties from year to year and in this manner preserve their distinctive culinary features.
Regardless of whether they were groundcherries or tomatillas, the oldest colloquial name for both plants in colonial America was wintercherry. This term is recorded by Henry Muhlenberg and Benedict Schipper in their 1812 Pennsylvania German dictionary. It was equated with the Pennsylvania High German word Judenkirsche, a term more correctly applied to the Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), but in the popular mind the two were the same thing. Thus Juddekaersche became the common Pennsylvania Dutch name for all members of the Physalis genus. The term wintercherry, although totally fallen out of use, reveals an interesting sidelight on the way groundcherries were harvested in the eighteenth century.
In the fall, right before frost, entire groundcherry plants were pulled up, the roots shaken dry, then hung upside down indoors in a dry, airy room. Preserved in this manner, the berries would keep in their husks for several months. Thus they could be harvested as needed all winter. This simple preservation technique is still practiced by Indians in temperate parts of Mexico and was probably known to the Indians who once resided in the eastern woodlands, for there were groundcherries native to that part of the country. Unfortunately, since none of the Physalis genus was of economic importance to colonial commerce, its various members were mostly ignored until the nineteenth century, when botanists began to catalog regional plants in earnest.
The yellow or common groundcherry is variously designated as Physalis pruinosa or Physalis pubescens. This is the groundcherry most familiar to gardeners and the one most readily available from seed houses. The plants grow as sprawling bushes some 2 feet tall, with branches spreading as much as 3 or 4 feet over the ground. The leaves are gray-green and covered with down. The fruit hangs from the stems in husks and is ripe when the husks drop to the ground. The most common named variety is Cossack Pineapple, which has lemon-yellow fruit and a distinct pineapple flavor. Groundcherries of this description were known in the eighteenth century. English gardener Thomas Mawe (1779, 486) noted that in Britain they could only be cultivated in greenhouses.
I also raise another yellow-fruited cultivar which I call New Hanover. Physically, it resembles Cossack Pineapple, but the flavor of the fruit is distinctive, somewhat like that of a yellow tomato. During a vegetable tasting held by the American Institute of Wine and Food in my garden several years ago, this groundcherry was preferred over all the others. New Hanover was preserved by the late Katie Hoffman Slonaker (1903–1983) on her farm at New Hanover, Pennsylvania. The plants in Katie’s garden were short, compact bushes that did not sprawl, but when moved to my garden, they began growing like the others. This suggests to me that soil may affect groundcherries-more fundamentally than previously thought.
The orange groundcherry is another variant form. It has fruit that is orange or apricot colored, and tastes distinctly of tangerines. This cultivar is distributed among seed savers under the name Aunt Molly (Aent Moll in Pennsylvania Dutch) and appears to be a variant form of Goldie, a variety sold by the Walter Schell seed company of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s. Botanist William Darlington described the orange groundcherry in 1837 and called it Physalis pennsylvanica with a question mark. He presumed it to be native and noted that it was more sought after and better eating than the others. It is not native, for it was introduced from the Caribbean like the other groundcherries of its species, but it was probably introduced quite early in the seventeenth century.
I raise another variety of groundcherry, which in Pennsylvania Dutch is known as the Lecha Jud-dakaersche or Lehigh County groundcherry. It is thought to have been introduced by the Moravians, brought back from South America by some of their missionaries in the early nineteenth century. The fruit ripens orange-bronze or brown. It is naturalized throughout the northern parts of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, and in neighboring Northampton County. It is also the rarest of the three forms of groundcherry that I offer through Seed Savers Exchange.
The husk tomato or tomatillo was introduced from Mexico in the 1840s and is simply known among the Pennsylvania Dutch as the large groundcherry or Lutzert-Tomatt (lantern tomato). These colloquial names were borrowed by English-speaking Americans, especially in the Midwest. All of the members of this species produce fruit that expands in the surrounding husk and eventually breaks through it. The flavor of the fruit is most similar to that of a tomato, and it can be used in either its green or ripe state because the chemistry of the ixocarpa is different from that of the groundcherry. There are many varieties and subvarieties of tomatillos, but only two fall into the category of heirlooms for most of the United States outside of the Southwest.
The large green husk tomato is now available in several forms, the most common being the variety called Toma Verde, but the old one is a cultivar that grows into a small sprawling bush no more than 2 1/2 feet tall. The leaves are small and the fruit is smaller than most of the Mexican tomatillos commonly available in markets. It comes to fruit late in the season, late October and early November, and is therefore difficult to grow in areas where frost comes earlier. Frost does not damage the fruit in the husks, but it does cause all the fruit to drop. The ripe fruit is green-white, sometimes heavily tinged with yellow, and sweet. Seeds are distributed by the Landis Valley Museum under the name Huberschmidt groundcherry. It appears to be a variant form of the jamberry or sweet tomatillo of southern California.
The purple husk tomato grows into a very tall, sprawling bush with branches spreading as much as 6 feet. The fruit is purple-black when fully exposed to the sun, but if shaded, the coloring will appear in patches. This variety is sold by several seed companies under the name Purple de Milpa, but was originally introduced in the 1840s from Mexico. Several correspondents with the editor of the American Agriculturist (1858, 340) reported having it in their gardens from as diverse areas of the country as Hempstead, Long Island, central New Jersey, and Wisconsin. It has now become naturalized in several parts of the southeastern United States. Because it requires a long growing season in order to bear fruit, it cannot be grown successfully in areas colder than USDA Zone 6. However, the plants are rampant growers and are not overly sensitive to cool weather, or even to an occasional light frost. Because they take up a great deal of room, this variety of tomatillo was often planted among the tepees of pole beans or in the fields among the corn and pumpkins.
Seed saving techniques for groundcherries and husk tomatoes are the same as those for tomatoes.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Photos Courtesy William Woys Weaver.