Ground-Cherry Pie

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

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.