Aunt Molly’s ground cherry preserves may have occupied a privileged spot in your great-aunt’s pantry, but you’ll be hard pressed to find them nowadays. Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are an endangered heirloom. Their recorded heritage traces back to 1837, when they first appeared in Pennsylvania horticultural literature.
Once commonly grown in backyard gardens, ground cherries somehow lost their way. Though they are ridiculously easy to grow and store, ground cherries are difficult to transport. Urbanization and the movement away from growing one’s own food led to the demise of this golden gem. The good news is that they can be grown in containers or raised beds, they’re relative pest-free, and they produce abundant fruit from mid-summer through frost.
Ground cherries are really not cherries at all. They are members of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes and tomatillos. Like the tomatillo, ground cherries grow inside a papery husk. When ripe, ground cherries turn bright yellow and fall to the ground. Though several varieties are native throughout the Americas and Eastern Europe (‘Aunt Molly’ is a Polish variety), ground cherries taste like tropical treats. Their pineapple — vanilla flavor brightens pies, jams, and chutneys. They are equally delicious eaten raw, dried, or cooked. Squirrels and small children are keen to ground cherries’ charms, so gardeners should keep a close look-out for ripe, fallen fruit.
Ground cherries are frost tender and should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before spring planting in cooler climates. They’ll produce prolifically beginning 70 days from transplant, through the first fall frost. Good drainage and humus-rich soil ensure an abundant crop. Two to three plants grown in raised-beds or large pots will provide enough ground cherries for a season of tasty jams and pies, with a few left over for wildlife. Staking helps keep branches and fruit off the ground. Though they are sometimes susceptible to flee-beetles, ground cherries’ weed-like nature makes them fairly disease resistant. In addition to ‘Aunt Molly’s,’ tasty varieties to try include: Physalis pubescens ‘Cossack,’ Physalis pubescens ‘Goldie,’ and Physalis peruviana ‘Cape Gooseberry.’
Once harvested, ground cherries will continue to ripen, if placed in a well-ventilated container on the countertop. They will store for up to three months in a cool (50 degree) environment. They also store well when dried like raisins, either in a dehydrator, or by placing them in the oven on its lowest setting for several hours.
6 c. ground cherries
1 c. granular sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
3 Tbsp. flour
¼ tsp. salt
prepared pie shell or crust
3/4 c. flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
¼ tsp. salt
3/4 c. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine ground cherries with filling ingredients: granular sugar, almond extract, flour, and salt.
For the topping: mix the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, using your hands or a pastry knife to blend butter into the dry ingredients.
Pour ground cherry mixture into the pie crust, and sprinkle crumb topping evenly on top.
Place the pie on top of a cookie sheet to catch any drippings.
Bake for 1 ½ hours, or until the fruit is bubbly and the topping is brown.
Cool for several hours before cutting.
Brenda Lynn is the author of www.BeeHappyGarden.com, a blog devoted to small-space, organic vegetable gardening, native plants, and beekeeping. She is a free-lance writer, garden coach, and outdoor educator in northern Virginia, where she lives and gardens in her suburban backyard.