The ground cherry plant is also called the cape gooseberry, and it is one plant that is native to several different parts of the United States. You’ll commonly see them growing alongside roads or out in open fields, and ground cherries offer deep green, large leaves with dozens of pale yellow flowers that will turn into cherry-sized fruits.
To grow your own ground cherry plant, there are a few things that you have to consider. You won’t need many plants to thrive as a single plant can produce dozens and dozens of fruits right until the first frost of the season. We’ll outline everything you need to know about the ground cherry plant in terms of care and planting guidelines below.
Popular Ground Cherries Varieties
There are several ground cherry plants available that you can choose from, but some varieties are much more popular than others. A few to consider include but are not limited to:
- Aunt Molly’s: This is a Polish heirloom ground cherry plant that takes 70 days to be ready to harvest. It offers a nice citrus flavor.
- Goldie: Goldie will produce surprisingly large masses of big, golden-colored fruit in just 75 days.
- Pineapple: As the name suggests, this is a popular variety of ground cherry plant that tastes like pineapple. It takes 75 days to be ready to harvest, and they store very well in the husks until you’re ready to use them.
Ground cherries make a very unique and pretty look in your garden due to the husks, and they’ve prolific producers that have hundreds of fruit per plant.
Defining Ground Cherries
The ground cherry plant is an annual that is part of the Solanaceae family, and it shares this family with peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes. It’s part of the Physalis genus that includes tomatillos too. The Chinese Lantern genus is another very close relative to the ground cherry plant, and this is a decorative plant that you grow to show off the pretty red lanterns. However, the Chinese Lanterns are very toxic and you don’t want to eat them, unlike the ground cherries.
Cultivation and History
When you talk about ground cherries, you’re actually referring to several Physalis plant cultivars. There are currently at least 75 species, not all of them offer edible fruit. One of the most distinctive cultivars in this family is the Chinese Lantern, and this is a very unique plant that you grow as an ornamental instead of as something edible. Edible ground cherry plants won’t have the showy coloring the Chinese Lanterns do, but the husks hide a superfood that has been in use since the 17th century.
One of the most common ground cherry plants is P. pruinosa, and it’s native to the subtropical, warm Central American region. One species that is native to Chile and Peru is P. peruviana, and it’s commonly referred to as the golden berry or Cape gooseberry. Several species have naturalized to parts of North America, but it’s more common to see them in heirloom seed catalogs than in the backyard, but we’re going to change that.
Ground Cherry Plant Growth Overview
|Anthracnose, alternaria light blight, fusarium wilt, stem cankers, and mosaic virus
|Husk tomato, ground cherry, or strawberry tomato
|Four to eight
|One to three feet tall and wide
|Annual, shrub, fruit
|Acidic at 6.0 to 6.5
|Sandy, loamy, well-drained
|Toxic to people and pets, minus the fruit
Ground Cherry Plant Care
Caring for your ground cherry plant doesn’t require a high level of maintenance once you get them established and growing. We’ll touch on the biggest components to keep in mind for you below to help ensure you have dozens of the fruit.
Ground cherries do well in soil that you amend using compost. You can mix in an organic fertilizer that is specially formulated for vegetables and fruits if your soil quality is very poor and lacking in nutrients.
Ground cherry plants do best when you plant them in full sun, and they should get a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight most days. These plants can tolerate a small amount of shade, but this will cause them to produce fewer fruits when it comes time to harvest. So, the more sun you give them, the better your harvest will be.
Since ground cherry plants prefert well-draining and rich soil, you should add a layer of mulch to the garden after you plant them. Mulch the top two or three inches of soil with a pine straw or straw, and avoid putting it right up to the base of the plant. This will help reduce weed competition and maintain the moisture level.
Mulch can help retain moisture around the plants, and it can help the seedlings not have to compete with weed growth.
There is nothing you have to do to encourage pollination as these plants will self-pollinate and attract bees and other things to the yard.
For the most part, ground cherry plants aren’t extremely picky with the soil. However, they do best when you plant them in well-drained soil that has a slightly acidic pH with a rich organic matter.
Temperature and Humidity
In the growing zones, ground cherry plants have a decent heat tolerance. They do best in the temperature range of 55°F to 65°F, and they can survive without an issue with temperatures that go up to 85°F. However, frost will kill the plants. So, if you live in a cooler climate and frost threatens your plants before the fruits have a chance to ripen, you should cover them with a big piece of fabric or row covers to shield them. Humidity typically isn’t something you have to worry about with the ground cherry plants.
Ground cherry plants do best when you keep the soil fairly moist, and they’ll need roughly an inch of water every week. Dry conditions can cause your plants to drop the blossoms without producing any fruits. So, you should plan to water everything at least once a week if you don’t get any rainfall. In hot weather when the soil is drying out, you’ll want to water even more.
How to Plant Ground Cherries
Now that you know the best conditions to plant your ground cherry plants, you have to know when to start, how deep to plant them and how much space you need, and whether or not you should consider container planting.
Even though they usually don’t germinate well, you don’t need a huge amount of plants due to the number of fruits a single plant produces. Learning how to plant them will maximize your chances of getting a good harvest.
When to Plant
You can start your ground cherry plants indoors roughly six to eight weeks before the last frost date of the season or start them outside when the frost threat passes. You can easily grow them in raised beds, traditional beds, or containers. You want to make sure any place your ground cherry plant is, it gets plenty of sunlight and has soil that drains very well. Check the area for taller shrubs or trees that might cast shadows on your ground cherry plants and steer clear of this area.
Depth, Spacing, and Support
You should space your ground cherry plants at least two feet apart. Younger plants should be the same depth as they were in the containers. Any seeds should only go roughly ¼ inch deep. Including a support structure, like stakes or a tomato cage, can be helpful to help prevent the plant from listing to one side due to the fruit weight.
This plant is one that does extremely well in containers. They even do well if you choose to grow them upside down. If you’re very limited on space and you want to try growing something outside of traditional tomatoes, we encourage you to give this method a go. Be sure to plant them in a container that is big enough, and it should be a minimum of eight inches deep. Since these plants tend to creep in the garden, it’s a good idea to grow them in pots to keep them neatly contained. You’ll need to water any plants in containers more frequently.
Ground Cherry Plant Propagation
If you’re ready to try growing your own ground cherry plants, you can do so from seeds, cuttings, or transplants from nursery plants. The transplants can go directly into the garden soil while the seeds need to start indoors.
Most seed companies will recommend that you start your seeds inside instead of direct sowing. Direct sowing is an option, but you’ll usually get more ground cherry plants by starting them inside. If you choose direct sowing, plant them after the last frost of the season recedes. Loosen the soil and work in a little compost before moistening the soil and patting it down gently without compressing it hard.
Put your seeds on the top soil layer and cover them with roughly ¼-inch of soil. Pat it down gently and water it after you finish with all of your seeds. Then, you’ll water it daily with a gentle spray from the hose until the seeds start to germinate.
The seeds should start germinating in 5 to 10 days. Ground cherry plants have a very low germination rate, so you’ll want to plant a lot more than you need. When the seedlings are established, you want to thin them out so each plant comes with a two foot spread.
It’s popular to propagate your ground cherry plants using seeds, but you can also grow them using cuttings. This is an inexpensive and easy way to start new plants, and the best time to take a cutting is during the late spring or early summer months. You do this by:
- Get a four to six-inch stem cutting and remove any foliage on the lower half
- Dip the end you cut into rooting hormone
- Plant the cutting in a smaller container with plenty of drainage holes with soilless potting medium
- Put your cutting in a space that gets indirect but bright light and it’s warm
- Keep the growing medium moist but not soggy, and the roots should start to form in a few weeks. Once you see new growth start on the stem, it’s ready to transplant
Health plants will have light green leaves that are elongated to a slight tip and orange or reddish-colored husks that slowly change to tan.
Potting and Repotting Ground Cherry Plants
For potting ground cherry plants, you’ll want to use an organic potting mix that is made specifically for vegetables and fruits. You usually won’t have to repot this plant during the growing season unless you want to transplant a younger plant in a small container to something bigger. If this is the case, you’ll plant it at the same depth it was originally and fill in around the plant with potting mix.
Harvesting Ground Cherries
One of the trickiest parts of working with ground cherry plants is knowing the correct time to harvest them. The husk will hide the berry coloring and if you pick them too soon you’ll get sick eating them. A mature ground cherry plant can easily hold up to 300 fruits or more, and they all ripen individually. So, when you have ripe fruit, you’ll also have unripe fruit and flowers on the same plant. The key to getting tasty plants is that the ripe berries will fall from the plant, and this is why having a layer of mulch makes it easy to spot them.
The papery husks on the berries are a light tan, so using a dark-colored mulch will help them stand out. You don’t want to use straw as this is the same color as the husks. You can also lay towels or blankets around the plants and give them a light shake to encourage the ripe berries to fall.
Eating Ground Cherries
To eat your ground cherries, all you have to do is remove the husk. If you’re not going to eat them straight away, you should leave the husk on. You’ll get a sweet-tart flavor that allows you to use it in savory and sweet dishes. You can use them to make:
- Add them to cobblers, pie, and muffins
- Change up salsa recipes by adding them to it
- Cook a batch of ground cherry chutney
- Dip them in chocolate as you would strawberries
- Toss them into your salads
- Use them as a pizza topping
One of the biggest selling points of ground cherry plants is how long they last when you harvest them. You can store them in a ventilated container like a mesh bag or basket in a cool place that is roughly 50°F for around three months without them going bad.
You can save the seeds too, but if you put your ground cherry plants in the garden, you may not need to save them. It’s very common for new plants to pop up the next year. You can save a few seeds and transplant them to an ideal location or give them to family and friends.
Saving your ground cherry plant seeds is an easy process. All you have to do is mash some of the fruit into a bowl of water. Swirl the bowl vigorously and mash the flesh of the fruit gently using your fingertips to help separate the seeds from the pulp. Allow the mixture to sit so that the seeds fall to your bowl’s bottom before carefully pouring off the water, skin, and pulp. Rinse the seeds in a mesh sieve until they’re clean. Spread your seeds out to dry on a coffee filter or screen and store them in a clean container until you’re ready to plant them.
Preserving Ground Cherries
One thing many people love about the ground cherry plant is that a single plant can produce hundreds of berries. The berries themselves are great sources of vitamin C and A, and they also contain vitamins B1, B2, and B3. If you grow a bumper crop, consider preserving them. Before you do, remove the husks and rinse the berries. You can preserve them by dehydrating, making jam, fermenting, or freezing.
You should leave the fruits whole or cut them in half to use in jam. Jam with ground cherries as the main ingredient will make nice gifts and go well during the winter months. You can use dehydrated ground cherries just like you’d dehydrate grapes to make raisins.
The berries can also get frozen to use later. You should put them on a baking sheet after you clean them and put the baking sheet in the freezer. Freeze them for 30 minutes and remove the baking sheet. Put your flash-frozen ground cherries into a reusable glass container and store the container in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.
To dry them like you would grapes, you can use a food dehydrator or place them on a sheet pan and dry them at a very low temperature over several hours in the oven. Once they’re dry, you can store them in an airtight container.
Ground cherries can last up to three months when you store them in a cool, dark place, or you can easily freeze or dehydrate them to make them last even longer.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
If you’re a gardener who is more laid-back, then you want to consider adding ground cherry plants to your list of things to grow. These plants aren’t very prone to fungi, bacteria, and viruses, and most garden critters will leave them alone. However, there are a few unwelcome guests that you could see, and we’ll outline them below.
Cutworms can be an issue for young seedlings. You can protect the seedlings using plant collars, or you can sprinkle coffee grounds or eggshells around the base of the plants. Be sure to identify them correctly though because they look very close to butterflies that are actually beneficial to your ground cherry plant.
These tiny beetles will chew a hole in the ground cherry plant leaves. In healthy plants, this is more of an aesthetic concern than a danger to the plant. You can plant basil close to your cherry plants to repel them. Inspecting the plants regularly is also the main strategy to employ.
Ground Cherry Leaf Beetles and Colorado Potato Beetles
These beetles are very easy to spot, even though they’re on the smaller side. They have bright yellow stripes that contrast with black stripes. If you find them on your plants, you can simply pick them off.
Ground cherry plants can attract some animals to the general area of your garden, including raccoons, squirrels, possums, rabbits, and deer. Luckily, the ripe fruit gets hidden in the husks, so most herbivores won’t find them quickly. Fencing in your ground cherry plants can help protect them, and floating row covers will give you more protection.
Tomato hornworms will happily eat any nightshade plants, so they can target your ground cherry plants. Inspect these plants for these larger caterpillars and remove them as you see them. They’re great treats to feed your chickens.
The ground cherry plant is a unique option you can consider adding to your garden, just remember that every plant produces a huge amount of fruits. They store very nicely for up to three months or longer if you dehydrate or freeze them, so you can easily use them throughout the year.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.