Ground-Cherry Pie

You can forage or grow the fixin's for ground-cherry pie, an almost forgotten treat from grandmother's day.

  • 070 ground cherry pie - pie and bowl
    A baked ground-cherry pie and bowl of rip ground cherries.
  • 070 ground cherry pie - wild ground cherries
    Although this sweet, tomato-like fruit can be cultivated, the wild versions—such as these roadside plants—are equally delicious.
  • 070 ground cherry pie - chinese lantern
    When you go out foraging for ground cherries, don't be fooled by Chinese Lanterns, which are a non-edible, ornamental species.

  • 070 ground cherry pie - pie and bowl
  • 070 ground cherry pie - wild ground cherries
  • 070 ground cherry pie - chinese lantern

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!)

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!

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.

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