(Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden) Good golly, Miss Molly! Whatcha got growing there? Sure looks good. Well, it ought to. It's an heirloom from way back when - Aunt Molly's ground cherry, aka Aent Moll (Physalis pruinosa). What you may know as ground cherry, however, others refer to as wintercherry, husk cherry, poha, strawberry tomato, and sometimes pineapple tomatillo.

Ground Cherry History

Ground cherries are members of the Physalis genus, which includes the tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica). In fact, tomatillos and ground cherries are cousins, originating in Central and South America. The fruit of this plant is encased in a thin, papery husk just like tomatillo and splits when ripe, falling to the ground - get it, GROUND cherry. Ground cherries have been grown in North America since the mid 1800's and were popular additions in Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. And it was here that Aunt Molly's variety came to be, at least in the States, tracing back to the Walter Schell seed company in PA around the 1920's. In fact, the plants were first recorded in 1837 in Pennsylvania by botanist William Darlington, who described the orange ground cherry as Physalis pennsylvanica 'with a question mark,' presuming it to be native to the area. It was not native, however, but believed to have been introduced from the Caribbean, like others in the genus, as early as the seventeenth century. Apparently, though, this is a Polish heirloom - but how that came to be is beyond me. Said to be one of the more sought after and best-tasting cultivars, it has a distinctive sweet flavor reminiscent of tangerines, or as some describe as having a "pineapple citrus-like" flavor. In fact, Aunt Molly's ground cherries are so popular that they are often used in the making of Ground Cherry pie. Ingredients:

  • Pastry for a 2 crust 9-inch pie
  • 3 tbsp. quick cooking tapioca
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¾ tsp. almond extract
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Dash of salt
  • 2 ½ cups husked ground cherries
  • 2 tbsp. (¼ stick) butter

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the pastry and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the tapioca, sugars, almond extract, nutmeg and salt. Sprinkle half the mixture in the bottom of the pastry shell and top with ground cherries, dotting with the butter. Top with a lattice design or other decorative top crust. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F and bake for another 45-50 minutes, or until the crust is deep golden and the juices in the pie are bubbling up in the center. Cool before cutting, serve and enjoy!

Growing Aunt Molly's Ground Cherries

Well, now that you know a little about its background, are you curious enough to grow it? The plant shares similar growing requirements as both tomatillos and tomatoes. You can start the seeds indoors in soilless potting mix (lightly covering) and transplant to the garden at the same time you would set for these crops. In general, it takes around 70 days until ready to harvest. The fruit, which resembles a cherry tomato to me and possibly where the other reference in its name derives, starts out green within the greenish leathery husk, before turning yellow-orange while its husk matures to golden-brown. This husk will eventually become transparent, split and drop off the plant. Fun Fact: The term wintercherry alludes to the way the plant was harvested in the eighteenth century. Just prior to the first fall frost, entire plants were pulled up and hung upside down to dry where the berries would keep in their husks for months, used as needed throughout winter. Aunt Molly's makes especially good pies, preserves and fruit salads, and the fruit can store for up to a month when left in the husks. Special note: All parts of this plant, except for the fruit, are toxic. Anyone with known allergies to tomatoes should not consume ground cherries, or tomatillos for that matter.

Nikki Tilley
Senior Editor

Nikki Tilley has been gardening for nearly three decades. The former Senior Editor and Archivist of Gardening Know How, Nikki has also authored six gardening books.