In the spring my mom and I went to the Moscow Farmers Market and came across a plant we had never seen before. Usually at plant stalls I can look around and name every vegetable plant I see so we made a point of asking the stall owner about it. The man got very exited and told us it was a pineapple ground cherry. Apparently ground cherries are unique in the fact that they are not ripe until they have fallen off the plant! Hence why they are called the ground cherry. They have little paper lantern shells like the tomatillo that protects the fruit and makes it easy to harvest off of the ground. He said that he wasn’t impressed with the flavor of tomatillos, saying they were only good for salsa but the ground cherry was another ball game entirely. He claimed that his pineapple ground cherry has a wonderful sweet flavor and can be eaten without any processing whatsoever. His little nieces and nephews would come over to visit and immediately run off to hunt for ripe fruit under the bushes. His praise convinced us to buy the plant, we figured if we didn’t like the fruit we didn’t have to eat it, but it sounded like fun.
I have been very happy with our impulse buy. We decided to plant it in one of our big clay pots and put a sturdy tomato cage around it because the man said they get big. The plant drinks a bit of water, but not nearly as much as the tomato we have growing next to it. The plant started out about a foot high and is now about twice that. It is wider than it is tall and drops several little paper lanterns each day. Hunting for them is like Easter every morning. The man was right, they taste sweet and lovely, although they have quite a few seeds. My dad didn’t like them and described it a cross between a pineapple and a tomato. I personally yum them up. The fruit are tiny, more like a berry than a grape. I’ve never seen one bigger than half an inch big. I don’t think we will ever collect enough fruit from one plant to make any kind of salsa or chutney but we will be collecting seeds and planting another bush next year. It has been fun!
Interestingly there are several species of ground cherry that grow wild in the PNW that I read about in Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon, by T Abe Lloyd and Fiona Hamersley Chambers (wonderful book). Apparently they were a big part of native American diets. The wild plants fruit probably are not as sweet as my pineapple ground cherry but I’m going to keep an eye out for them anyway.