While strolling the nursery seed isle this weekend looking for things to plant for our summer food needs, Homegrown Revolution came across a strange fruit we’ve never heard of, Physalis pruinosa, a.ka. ground cherry, a.k.a. husk tomato. a.k.a. strawberry tomato. Homegrown Revolution hates to throw around scientific names for plants but in this case we have to because the common names get so confusing. The back of the Tompson & Morgan seed package mis-labels this plant as the “Cape Gooseberry” (“Cape Gooseberry” is actually the very similar Physalis peruviana).
Physalis pruinosa is part of a genus Physalis of the nightshade or Solanaceae family, which includes edible plants such as tomatoes and potatoes, and psychotropic plants such as datura and tobacco. Many plants of the nightshade family combine edibility and toxicity–Physalis pruinosa has edible fruit that tastes something like a cross between a pineapple and a tomato, with the rest of the plant being poisonous.
The Physalis genus, which includes Physalis pruinosa, is somewhat of a neglected backwater of the nightshade family with a number of very similar plants that produce sweet berries including the aforementioned Physalis peruviana or Cape Gooseberry, Physalis heterophylla, also known by the unappetizing name “Clammy Ground Cherry”, Physalis philadelphica, the Purple Ground Cherry, Physalis pubescens also known as the Ground Cherry and Husk Tomato, Physalis viscosa, the Sticky Ground Cherry and the much more common (at least in our neighborhood) Physalis ixocarpa or Tomatillo. To add to the confusion several hybrids exist of these plants. Clammy ground cherry pie anyone?
As for the fruit of Physalis pruinosa itself, it does not ship well, hence you’ll never find it in American supermarkets, which only seem to carry things that have been shipped for thousands of miles and are therefore both durable and, inevitably, tasteless. Cultivating strange things like this is one of the best arguments for growing your own food–access to flavorful and exotic fruits and vegetables.
The very similar Cape Gooseberry (Physalis perviana) is commercially cultivated in many places in the world but is not considered an important crop. It is most commonly used in jams and pies. According to the Horticulture department of Purdue University,
In England, the cape gooseberry was first reported in 1774. Since that time, it has been grown there in a small way in home gardens, and after World War II was canned commercially to a limited extent. Despite this background, early in 1952, the Stanford Nursery, of Sussex, announced the “Cape Gooseberry, the wonderful new fruit, especially developed in Britain by Richard I. Cahn.” Concurrently, jars of cape goosebery jam from England appeared in South Florida markets and the product was found to be attractive and delicious. It is surprising that this useful little fruit has received so little attention in the United States in view of its having been reported on with enthusiasm by the late Dr. David Fairchild in his well-loved book, The World Was My Garden. He there tells of its fruiting “enormously” in the garden of his home, “In The Woods”, in Maryland, and of the cook’s putting up over a hundred jars of what he called “Inca Conserve” which “met with universal favor.”
Our package of Physalis pruinosa was priced at a staggering $3.99–a lot considering the package only contained 12 seeds. You can be certain that we’ll be doing some seed saving on this one if we get a successful crop! The googling required to sort out the many common names of Physalis pruinosa revealed an intriguing source of seeds, Trade Winds Fruit, located in Chula Vista. Trade Winds carries a number of nightshade family plants including four from the Physalis genus and even something called Solanum uporo or Cannibal’s Tomato, so called because it’s well suited for making a sauce compatible with human flesh.
We’ll forgo the cannibal recipes, at least for now . . .