I'm about to tell you about a plant that I think you should plant in your garden, a plant that you've probably never heard of, or may dimly remember from your childhood. That plant is a small, half-inch to three-quarter-inch fruit known as a ground-cherry.
It's a close relative of the tomatillo and, like a tomatillo, grows inside a paper husk. Also, like a tomatillo, it's incredibly easy to grow.
Ground-cherries are native in many parts of the United States and you can sometimes find them growing alongside roads. One friend of mine recalls an entire hillside of them growing at her grandparents' home.
The plants have large, dark green leaves and lots of pale yellow flowers that develop into cherry-sized fruits, growing inside paper husks. As they ripen, the husks turn brown and dry.
The plants are rarely bothered by pests or diseases, maybe because of their weedlike nature. They grow with almost no effort.
Sweet small tomatoes
Ground-cherries are not actually cherries, but instead a small ground tomato. The fruits have been cultivated since the 17th century and were recorded in horticultural literature as early as 1837.
The taste of the ripe fruit is delicious, but hard to describe -- a kind of citrusy, pineapple, vanilla cream flavor that's very unique. Earlier this summer, my sister-in-law told me that the ground-cherries she picked up and sampled were the best tasting thing she's ever had from my garden.
They are delicious eaten raw, but because of their high pectin count, are also excellent for jams, preserves and pies. They can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. You can substitute them for mango or pineapple in sweet salsa, or eat them over ice cream. Or, try dipping them in chocolate, using the twisted husk as a handle, which is my favorite way of eating them.
Easy to grow
Ground-cherries can be grown from seeds or transplants. If you grow the plants from seeds, I'd recommend starting them indoors about six to eight weeks before the average last frost date. After all danger of frost is past and the soil has warmed, you can transplant seedlings into the ground.
They begin producing fruit about 70 days from transplant and keep bearing nonstop until frost. One plant can produce up to 300 fruits. We've found that four to six plants take care of our family's needs.
The plants need good drainage, making raised beds ideal. Like tomatoes, the plants sprout roots along their stems, so plant them deeply. Set the plants 3 feet apart because they like to sprawl. The smaller sized tomato cages work well for supporting the plants, if you'd like to minimize sprawling.
Pick a spot that you'll want to keep them in because you will get volunteers next year from any fruits not picked off the ground.
They can be invasive if not watched, but are very easy to control. Test gardens also recommend growing ground-cherries on landscape fabric to suppress weeds and volunteers, and to make harvesting easier. Although we don't do that in our garden, I haven't had a problem with controlling volunteers, or with harvesting.
Speaking of harvesting, if you have children, they will love to help harvest ground-cherries. Ground-cherries have a peculiar characteristic of falling on the ground before they are ripe. Fruit on the ground is the perfect level for little ones to pick up.
Once they drop, gather them up and keep them at room temperature in their husks. In a week or less, their color will deepen from light yellow to a warm orange gold that signals ripeness. Don't eat them when they are green, because the green fruits are toxic.
Store the fruits in their husks and they will stay fresh for a month or so. You can also freeze the fruits for cooking and baking later in the year. The fruits are rich in vitamins C, B-1 and B-3, contain iron, and have only 52 calories per three-quarter-cup serving.
The two varieties that you are most likely to find are Aunt Molly's and Cossack Pineapple. Aunt Molly's is a Polish heirloom, native to eastern and central North America. Cossack Pineapple has a more pronounced pineapple taste. Both are easy to grow, prolific and very sweet.
The taste alone is enough of a reason to grow ground-cherries. But, in addition, you'll also be helping to save a plant from extinction. Ground-cherries are currently listed as endangered in many parts of the country.
They have achieved a place in the Ark of Taste, an initiative from Slow Food USA, in which more than 200 foods in danger of extinction have been cataloged. The Ark of Taste chooses varieties whose cultural and culinary significance makes them worth saving. Grow ground-cherries and you are helping to preserve a piece of agriculture.
Seeds can be obtained through Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org). Seed Savers Exchange also carries transplants, if you prefer not to start the seeds yourself.
Karen Hager's column runs every other Saturday in Extra.