The Under-Appreciated Ground Cherry

Start talking about ground cherries, and most people will probably just give you a blank look. No, they’re not cherries that have been pulverized. Ground cherries, or husk tomatoes, look like marble-sized yellow tomatoes dressed in papery tomatillo husks.

They’re in season now and can be found at a few local farmers’ markets. Sweet to the point of almost being berry-like, ground cherries are a garden-to-table fruit from the nightshade family. The common name of the plant is derived from the way the fruit ripens: the cherries fall to the ground when they're fully ripe and ready to eat.

WNYC’s Amy Eddings, who has found ground cherries at the Fort Greene farmer’s market, spoke with Hudson Valley Seed Library’s Ken Greene about the unusual fruit.

Greene, along with his business partner, Doug Muller, grows ground cherries on his two-acre farm in Ulster County, and the resulting seeds comprise one of the seed library’s best sellers. The purpose of the organization, which Greene began two years ago, is to preserve and perpetuate regional heirloom plants, like ground cherries.

"[The members] check out seeds like a book, they grow them in their garden, they save some seeds from the plants that they grow to return to the library," says Greene. "The goal is to create a regionally adapted source of seeds for New York." The Hudson Valley Seed Library also offers a full catalog of seeds, as well as a 16-pack of seeds with envelopes decorated by New York artists.

Greene explained that ground cherry plants work best in home gardens, since the fruit continually ripens through the season. That requires gathering handfuls of ground cherries before the birds and critters can get to them. The continuous process is one reason farmers—who prefer fruits and vegetables that can be harvested all at once—generally don’t grow the heirloom fruit.

"Something like the ground cherry really needs to be grown either in a home garden or on a small diversified farm that's going to farmers' markets because they're not going to travel well," says Greene, adding that the fruit will keep for two to three weeks after harvest.

Chef Amy Chaplin notes that she doesn’t often come across ground cherries, but has found them in abundance at Norwich Meadow Farm’s booth in the Tompkins Square Park greenmarket.

Chaplin’s prefers eating ground cherries raw, but also uses them as a garnish. Greene also notes that the fruit makes a great sauce to top ice cream, and since they’re naturally rich in pectin, ground cherries also make great jams and jellies.

Below is a ground cherry compote recipe from the blog "And Then I Do the Dishes."

Ground Cherry and Vanilla Compote
Adapted from Ricardo Magazine

  • 4 cups ground cherries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 vanilla bean or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract

In a saucepan, mix together the ground cherries, the sugar and the lemon juice. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and with the tip of a knife, remove all of its seeds. Add the seeds and the bean to the pan. If you use vanilla extract, add it only after the compote has finished cooking. Stirring frequently, bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer for about 25 minutes or until the cooking juices are slightly syrupy. Remove the vanilla bean and pour the compote into sterilized jars. Serve with toast, cookies or vanilla cake.