An underrated fruit in North American gardens, ground cherries are bush-like plants which can give you prolific harvests and a taste of the tropics even if you’re a northern grower.
Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are a member of the nightshade family, similar to tomatoes and tomatillos. In fact, when you slice them open they kind of look like cherry tomatoes.
If you’ve started growing ground cherries, it can be hard to know exactly when they’re ripe, since they’re always covered in a papery husk.
Unripe ground cherries are sour and contain solanine and solanidine, which are toxic compounds that in small amounts can cause nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps, and can be dangerous if eaten in moderate to high amounts. All parts of the ground cherry plant are toxic except for the ripe fruit. You can tell a ground cherry is ripe when it reaches its final color, which is often yellow or pale orange. Unripe ground cherries will taste sour and will become sweet after ripening.
From Seed to Harvest – How Long Should It Take?
Most ground cherry varieties take 65 to 75 days to reach maturity. Days to maturity (usually found on the seed packet or plant label) refers to the days after transplanting until your first harvest.
Add at least another 40 days (ground cherry seeds should be sown 4 to 8 weeks before the last frost), and that should give you an idea of how long you will wait until you get ripe ground cherries from seed.
How to Tell if Ground Cherries Are Ripe
Ground cherries are ripe when they have fully changed to their final color (usually yellow or pale orange) and the papery husk around them is dry. Unripe ground cherries are tart and shouldn’t be eaten, anyway, while ripe ones will have a sweet, fruity taste with tropical notes.
After they’ve ripened, the stem attached to the fruit starts to die off, and the fruit falls off the plant, which is how ground cherries get their name. However, even if your ground cherries are dropping, make sure they have changed to their final color, as sometimes unripe ground cherries can fall off the plant.
Fortunately, just like other nightshades like tomatoes, green ground cherries can ripen off the plant.
How to Harvest Ground Cherries
Since ground cherries naturally fall to the ground when ripe, simply look around your plant and collect any husk-wrapped fruit off the ground. As mentioned above, sometimes unripe ground cherries can fall to the ground. But fully ripe ones might still be on the plant as well.
Hold a branch or the stem of your ground cherry plant and give it a gentle shake to drop any fully ripe or nearly ripe ground cherries.
Related Questions About Harvesting Ground Cherries
Will Ground Cherries Ripen After Picking?
Yes, ground cherries will continue to ripen off the plant. The flavor might not be as good as vine-ripened ground cherries, but they will still be sweet and fruity.
Just as with with green tomatoes, you can leave unripe ground cherries on the kitchen counter until they’ve fully ripened. I haven’t tried the banana trick (i.e. putting unripe fruit in a paper bag or cardboard box with ripe bananas) but I imagine it would also work to ripen ground cherries more quickly.
How Do You Store Ripe Ground Cherries? Should They Be Refrigerated?
If your ground cherries are fully ripe, you can keep them in your refrigerator in a paper bag or a bowl with cloth or paper towel over the top. Ground cherries can keep for a surprisingly long time before spoiling. They can normally last 1 to 2 weeks in the fridge, but sometimes can keep for a month before turning soft.
If you have an extra large harvest and want to keep ground cherries for desserts or preserves in the future, you can also freeze them. Place them in a resealable plastic bag and toss them in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.