Nightshade’s Sweet Treat

Posted on August 31, 2011
Written by Sarah Ellis, MS, RD

As daylight changes, subtly signaling the approach of fall, we can comfort ourselves against the loss of summer with anticipation of autumn harvest.

Physalis.jpgThis is the time of year when a magical little golden fruit within a paper lantern package begins to appear in farmers’ markets. Once widely cultivated, ground cherries are enjoying new recognition as we rediscover their clean, sweet, citrusy flavor and explore the many ways to incorporate them into our late summer fare.

Ground cherries grow globally in warm to temperate climates; some being perennial, and others, annual fruits and are used for both culinary and ornamental purposes. North American ground cherries, physalis pruinosa, are one of more than a hundred different species, a quarter of which are native to the United States. Similar in appearance to orange/yellow cherry tomatoes, this fruit grows on a more stiff stemmed small shrub and has a papery covering, husk or cape. Physalis peruviana is a larger variety native to South America while Central America produces p. philadelphia. The latter’s fruit can be green, yellow, red or purple; the green fruit more commonly known as tomatillo or tomate verde. This last species is probably one of the oldest cultivated ground cherries in the Americas. P. alkekengi is the striking, large orange ‘Chinese lantern’ that appears in so many ornamental arrangements in the autumn.

The ground cherry is a member of the nightshade family, solanacea, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. The immature plants contain solanine, a toxic substance that should not be eaten.

The flavor of ground cherries has been compared to strawberry but with distinctly unique tartness and subtle hints of pineapple and mango. They may be enjoyed raw, straight off the vine, dried, frozen or cooked into pies, jams, chutneys and sauces. The many uses for this versatile fruit are limited only by the cook’s imagination. If left in their husk, they will keep for up to 6 months in a well ventilated spot, although they also freeze well.

This fruit has the same healthful properties as tomatoes; low in calories but high in nutrients including vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, especially those associated with the color orange. Its vitamin A, C and niacin content rank it among the most nutrient dense for fruit with these nutrients. One ounce has approximately 16 calories and 0.5 grams of protein. Based on a 2000-calorie diet, the RDA for vitamin A provided is 4%, vitamin C, 5% and niacin, 4%.

Native Americans as well as the American pioneers included ground cherries in their diets. The Chinese used them as a remedy for sore throats, coughs, fevers and abscesses.

The simplest way to use the cherry is to gently hold it between your index finger and thumb, near the stem-end. Applying pressure will help the fruit to pop out of its protective papery husk, straight into your mouth! If you really want to share this treat, slice it into a summer salad along with all the other vegetables and fruits ripening now; tomatoes, peaches, berries and herbs. Season with good quality olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or lime, and enjoy. Adding cooked grains and dried beans will take the salad to the level of entree.