Ground Cherries

Ah, the mystique of the ground cherry. They don’t grow on the ground, they’re barely related to cherries, and each is covered in a papery lantern-shaped wrapper. Fairly obscure, ground cherries pop up randomly in fields, mix in with roadside brush, or are planted purposefully and then sprawl in someone’s garden, and make an occasional showing at farmers markets.

What’s to love about these tiny orange pearls? Beautiful to behold, the thrill of discovery, if that’s your thing, and their flavor. It’s hard to put a finger on the taste, but fans find big hints of pineapple, mango, strawberry, or a fusion of all three with a smack of tartness on the backside.

On her two-acre Madison farm, called Wood Road Salad Farm, market gardener Maggie Fusco is one of scant few Northeast Ohio farmers willing to nurture the problem child of the nightshade family, in which tomatoes are king.

“Yep, they are a pain to raise,” she admits. “They’re also called husk cherries, winter cherries, strawberry tomatoes, so there’s always some confusion.”

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Last season, a shopper at the Willoughby Outdoor Market, where Maggie sells specialty produce, chided her, insisting that her pint containers were filled with cape gooseberries (in all fairness, there is a resemblance, and some even say they are the same thing).

He grumbled, “She doesn’t even know what she’s selling.” Maggie smiled and remembered that the customer is always right, even when they’re not. So here’s her strategy in explaining ground cherries.

Imagine the plant, which grows like a tomato plant. “The branches hang out to the side, like if you would hold your arms out,” describes Maggie “and the fruit grows in pairs on the underside.” As the fruit ripens, a few at time, it drops to the ground, a few every day throughout tomato season. A breeze or the slightest brush of the knee-high plant will loosen the ripened fruits.

“If you like to grovel along the ground, you would like these,” she jokes. Every time she’s on her knees collecting a pint at a time, and just five to ten pints total for each plant, she understands how they got their name, and why they are not commercially grown despite the pleasant taste, vibrant color, and meaty texture with few seeds and none of the gel a typical tomato would have.

“As they sit on the counter for a few days or weeks, instead of losing their looks and flavor, both intensify,” she said. “Tender, but tough, if you know I mean.”

Maggie’s customers get a jolt of nostalgia when they spot the pints on her stand. “I hear them reminisce about ground cherry pies they had when they were growing up,” she said “and my Amish neighbors have made them into tarts, jams, and salsa.”

“I’ve substituted ground cherries for raisins in a dish that added sweetness, and I think they would make a great chutney, maybe a sweet sauce for duck,” Maggie said. “But really, I don’t make much out of them.”

For her, they’re nature’s candy in their own little biodegradable wrapper.