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!
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!)
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.