What Are the Benefits of Ground Cherries?

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

ground cherries

Story at-a-glance -

  • Antioxidants, carotenoids and powerful chemical compounds like kaempferol, quercetin and withanolides impart antimicrobial, antitumor, anti-inflammatory and other health-beneficial activity to ground cherries
  • Ground cherries, aka cape gooseberries, refer to a fruit that’s generally yellow-orange, about the size of a large marble and enclosed in a papery husk
  • Ground cherries are native to North America and have been transported across the globe for centuries, which has propagated both similar names and widespread confusion with fruits that are visually similar
  • Close cousins with the gooseberry and tomatillo, ground cherries are also members of the nightshade family, which may prove problematic for some people
  • Its important when buying ground cherries to ensure they’re organic, as new varieties made with gene editing technology have rendered these and other foods unsafe for consumption

If there were a short list of fruits surrounded by confusing, misleading and downright incorrect nomenclature, ground cherries would be on it. There are several reasons for that: They have a long history and are well-traveled over hundreds of years, as they were discovered and propagated in multiple areas of the world.

They're also similar in appearance to the fruit of other plants, so this small, yellow-orange, husk-covered fruit with a store of tiny yellow seeds inside has a plethora of names.

They've been called "uniquely sweet; a mixture of pineapple, strawberry and green grapes — sweet, tart and vaguely tropical."1 Smithsonian may have the best description of ground cherries: They're said to taste "like a cherry tomato injected with mango and pineapple juice, and (look) like an orange pearl encased in a miniature paper lantern."

Equally at home in tropical, subtropical and temperate climates, they're sometimes called cape gooseberries, but the botanical names are slightly different. Because of their early history in Central and South America, they're sometimes referred to as Aztec berry, Inca berry, Peruvian groundcherry and Peruvian cherry.

They've taken on such monikers as aguaymanto in Peru, uvilla in Ecuador and uchuva in Colombia. In Madagascar they're called pok pok; in Hawaii, they're known as poha; and in Egypt, they're harankash.

According to Healthy Steps, ground cherries are not only related to the tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) and Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi), they're also members of the nightshade family of plants. But in spite of the label, they're related to neither gooseberries nor cherries.

If all that is confusing, this might help: The botanical name for ground cherries, the variety native to North America, is Physalis pruinosa, while cape gooseberries, aka Physalis peruviana, are thought to have originated in South America. As Gracelinks observes:

"The two are very, very similar in both appearance and flavor, and in reality, the two names (ground cherries and cape gooseberries) are used interchangeably to refer to the fruit, which is generally yellow-orange, about the size of a large marble and enclosed in a papery husk …

Cape gooseberries, although native to South America, got their name from the Cape of Good Hope. They were introduced to South Africa in the early 19th century, and quickly became popular there.

From South Africa, the fruit was introduced to Australia and New Zealand. As with the early American pioneer settlers, early European colonists in Australia valued the fruit because it was one of the few fresh fruits available at the time."2

Ground Cherries Can Also Be Good for You

Their appearance as well as their flavor helps differentiate ground cherries from other fruits. Ground cherries (with yet again another descriptive name of "husk cherry") are said to make desserts brighter and add a sweet component to robust meals of meat or vegetables.

In her article referring to ground cherries as "misunderstood neighbors," Liz Granger mentions 70 varieties of Physalis fruits worldwide, and colorfully describes their many culinary aspects:

"Bite into this golden relative of the tomatillo, this berry thing, and taste its jammy insides — the nutty watermelon, the mellow sugar, the dulcet vinegar finish … They do sweet; they do savory. Native Americans turned ground cherries into a relish.

A Native American Zuni recipe combines them with onions, chili paste and coriander. The Omaha and other tribes enjoyed them fresh. Homesteaders preferred them with sugar. In sod homes and log cabins, pioneer ladies made ground cherry pie and ground cherry jam."3

But while one might think much of the nutritional value of this fruit must lie in its store of vitamins and minerals, in this case it's actually the phytochemicals. Like the sulforaphane in broccoli and the fisetin found in strawberries, it's in the polyphenols that you'll find the true power of the little-known ground cherry.

For instance, the oil from the fruit is rich in fatty acids, natural antioxidants, carotenoids, phytosterols and such chemical compounds as kaempferol, quercetin and withanolides, which have been found to possess antimicrobial, antitumor, anti-inflammatory and insect repellant properties, as well as hepatoprotective and immunomodulatory activity; glycosides also show anticancer activity.

Another study notes that a specific withanolide compound inhibits the growth of colon cancer cultures, induces cell cycle arrest at low concentrations and apoptosis at higher concentrations, and may have some effect on the prevalence of colon cancer, as well as having growth inhibiting effects on breast cancer cells.4

What Makes Ground Cherries Nutritionally Beneficial?

According to Fruits Info,5 ground cherries contain more vitamin C than oranges. It's important to note that the riper the fruit is, the higher the concentration of beta carotene. The journal International Journal of Food Nutrition and Safety notes that ground cherries (or more specifically, South American-derived cape gooseberries), have been popular as a traditional herb for blood purification and for treating cancer, leukemia, hepatitis and other ailments.

Vitamins and minerals are also plentiful. The five most prominent vitamins are A, C, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, while significant minerals include calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium. Then there's protein, which Nutrition Data6 reports is 2.7 grams or 5 percent of the dietary reference intake (DRI) per 1-cup serving. Lose Weight With Us also weighs in:

"Not only is vitamin A good for our eyesight, (it's) believed to inhibit cancer and lower cholesterol. Vitamin C protects us against colds and flu and is thought to lower our blood pressure and protect us from Parkinson's disease.

Niacin or vitamin B3 is well-known for increasing the level of HDL (high density lipoprotein) in our bodies, which in turn is thought to reduce the incidence of heart disease. This fruit also contains pectin, which helps regulate blood sugar."7

Additionally, water and ethanol extracts of P. peruviana, as well as other fruits, were tested to determine phenolic and antioxidant activity, and high levels of radical scavenging activity were found, which positively influenced high blood sugar and hypertension linked to Type 2 diabetes.8 As the International Journal of Food Nutrition and Safety observes:

"P. peruviana have been widely used in folk medicine as anticancer, antimycobacterial, antileukemic, antipyretic, immunomodulatory, and for treating diseases such as malaria, asthma, hepatitis, dermatitis, diuretic and rheumatism …

The plant is diuretic and juice of its leaves is given in worm and bowel complaints, while heated leaves are applied as a poultice (and) an extract of the leaves shows antibiotic activity against Staphylococcus."9

Propagating, Harvesting and Delicious Experimentation With Ground Cherries

Granger quotes Kathleen Cue, a horticulture associate from the University of Nebraska's Lincoln Extension office, who says early settlers found ground cherries invaluable because unlike many fruits like apples, pears and cherries, they didn't — and still don't — require five years to begin producing fruit; instead, they are easy for home gardeners to "morph from seed to food."

Treated like tomato plants, the seeds can be started indoors six weeks before the last frost before being transplanted into areas of full sun and, similarly, many "volunteer" by reseeding themselves.

It doesn't take long for ground cherry branches, which are faintly purple in color covered with fine hairs, to vine and spread. Under favorable conditions they may reach 6 feet in height, but they also do well when staked.

Although the period of harvest is relatively short, taking place somewhere between midsummer and early fall, the ease of the harvest helps explain how these fruits got their name, as they simply drop to the ground when they're ripe. The fruits continue to ripen, though, so collecting them early is best for flavor and texture.

First, the fruit turns from pale green to an amber or gold color, and indicates ripeness when the husk becomes papery and straw-colored. If they're still green in color, they're not ready yet and will taste bitter. When purchasing ground cherries, note that the outer covering should be intact, which helps them continue to ripen. They can be kept for as long as six months in a well-ventilated storage area, Fruits Info10 notes.

As for making use of your ground cherries in culinary endeavors, both sweet and savory recipes aren't difficult to find, but you don't need to go to a lot of trouble; simply adding them to tossed salads is said to be tasty with goat cheese. A sweet treat might involve adapting a healthy version of this tart recipe from My Three Loves,11 which uses "husk cherries" and plums with slices of ginger, orange and/or lemon zest, stevia (instead of sugar), nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla.

Smithsonian.com12 lists five quite novel ways to prepare them, such as chopping them into a salsa verde concoction with diced red onion and jalapeno, cilantro, lime and sea salt. Or, use them in combination with a relative such as tomatoes. Making a caprese salad is as simple as slicing them onto a platter and adding fresh mozzarella, chiffonaded basil, seasonings and a splash of rice vinegar.

The Kitchn13 passes along the recipe for a tasty salad vinaigrette from a site called Rawmazing.14 Combine the following in your blender or food processor, but note that the salad itself incorporates a cup of ground cherries mixed with cubed jicama, pumpkin seeds and lettuce:

Ingredients

  • 1 cup ground cherries
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 to 1 tablespoon liquid stevia
  • 1/4 cup organic virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
  • Himalayan salt and pepper to taste

Caveats for Buying Ground Cherries: Go for Non-GMO

For whatever reason, ground cherries, although native to the continent, are relatively unfamiliar to many people in the U.S., which explains why you're not likely to find them at your local supermarket. You may, however acquire them at farmers markets and heartland fruit and veggie booths.

They're generally sold in their husks. Inside, the fruits are often covered with a fine, slightly sticky coating that should be washed off before eating. But once you try them, it's altogether possible you'll be hooked.

It must be noted that as a nightshade plant alongside relatives like potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplant, they may prove to be hard to tolerate for some people.

The unripe fruits of some varieties, particularly the Chinese lantern plant, Granger cautions, have been reported as potentially toxic if too many are ingested. The wisest course with the leaves, stems and husks of nightshades is that they be discarded because they contain the poisonous compound solanine.

But there's something else to consider. Ground cherries may be prolific all over North America, growing in forests and hedgerows, but they're not exempt from efforts to use chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides in their growth. For that reason, search out sources for ground cherries that are free from harmful residue and sprays, which can be dangerous for anyone who ingests them.

Researchers using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeat), say that while most produce took hundreds of generations to become what they are today, they've been able to circumvent that.

Now, with CRISPR-Cas9, they can "whittle down the domestication process" to a few years, and their first experiment involves ground cherries, which "has everything it takes to become the next strawberry" that's "more suitable for agriculture."

Plant biotechnology expert and one of the developers to make the plants more productive and larger, Joyce Van Eck, says: "With some improvements, maybe it could become a specialty fruit crop."15

But if you're more interested in adding non-GM (genetically modified) ground cherries to your nutritional and culinary repertoire, Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and sharing of heirloom seeds. Granger suggests Aunt Molly's Physalis pruinosa,16 an organic ground cherry variety featured in the organization's current catalog. Planet Natural17 offers heirloom varieties, as does Heirloom Seeds.18