Thursday, May 26, 2016


They’re a bit smaller than cherries and they look like tomatoes.  In fact, they’re related to tomatoes so why anyone decided to call them ground-cherries is a bit mind boggling.  I would’ve guessed the name wild tomatoes or perhaps tomatillo del monte (little tomatoes of the woods) might have been more appropriate.  Some people say they taste like strawberries while others say they have their own unique sweet taste.  Bite into them and you’ll get a mouth full of crunchy seeds; and the one’s I’ve eaten were, to me at least, slightly bitter.  Nonetheless, “ground cherries” grow in abundance around our house as do wild gherkins, pepino del monte, granjeno berries, anacua berries, nopalitos, and an assortment of other wild berries, roots, and vegetables that make foraging both fun and practical.  We’re lucky to have edibles throughout the year.

Ground cherries are in the nightshade family, as are tomatoes, and thus they have some very poisonous cousins.  Plant field guides tend to concentrate on flowers and leaves and not much more.  The idea is to be able to walk around and identify the plants and maybe take some pictures.  The field-trip elitists will spout off the scientific names and then walk off as if bestowed with some secret powers.  It’s all quite silly but I’ve been guilty of doing that myself.  Besides, the scientific names that are supposed to be immutable and perhaps even sacrosanct change so often nowadays that the whole nomenclature process has become rather flippant.  I remember one guy telling me years ago, “Hell, you could be making up those [Latinized] names on the spot and we wouldn’t know the difference.”  But I was young and smug and didn’t realize that the most important names in any region are the folk-names because those are the names the rural people understand.  Ethnobotanists and bushcrafters, on the other hand, are more interested in whether or not the plant’s parts may be eaten, used medicinally or can be turned into things like cordage, hunting implements, structural materials and the like.  What I find interesting is that many woods people don’t seem all that concerned with giving things names.  After all, they know that everybody else in the area knows what they’re talking about so oftentimes the plant's identity is more closely related to its function than anything else.  The other day, for example, my water well man was out here and when he saw a bunch of ground cherries growing nearby he said, “Oh look!”  He bent forward and picked several of them then removed the thin, papery husks (an outgrowth of the calyx) and extracted the orange berries.  “What do you call that fruit?” I asked.  He shrugged and said, “I don’t know.  We just eat them.”  He ate a few more and I recalled that one of the last times he was here he spotted some wild cucumber growing from a vine near the well.  He got all excited and bent down and picked a bunch of pepinos and started eating them on the spot.  “What do you call those?” I asked.  Another shrug and then, “I don’t know.  We’ve been eating them all our lives.”

Now the craze around this homestead is to make salsa.  Mind you, I’m not much of a salsa eater.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy spicy food, it’s just that my stomach doesn’t seem to like them much anymore.  Regardless, experimenting with different salsas is a big deal here at the house.  The master concoctionist in this family is Matthew who can create meals and dishes better than anyone I know.  So it was only natural for Matthew to declare that he was going to experiment with making the perfect salsa using ground-cherries or tomatillo del monte as I prefer calling them.

Matthew’s recipes are quite tasty.  He’ll go around selecting the best quality tomatillos del monte and then spend an evening canning.  People come around eyeing the salsas and, of course, friends always get a sample.  The other day a Border Patrol friend was out here and Matthew gave him a jar.  Early the next morning he sent us a text saying, “Damn, I forgot my jar of salsa at your house.  I was all ready for some eggs and salsa this morning.”  So as soon as he can break free he’ll zip on out here and pick up the jar he forgot.  I imagine we’ll fry him up some eggs on the spot and add a plate stacked with fresh corn tortillas.  It’ll end up being a group thing.

FAMILY: Solanaceae
GENUS: Physalis
Approximately 90 species.
Ground Cherries grow in tropical or subtropical climates.  They grow low to the ground and seem to prefer sandy, alkaline soils.

1 comment:

  1. Makes sense, calling a plant by its local name or a more personal association, or even no name. We have ground cherries (that's what the Nature's Medicine Chest card calls them, with alternate names husk tomato, poppers and bladdercherry. I like 'poppers') growing here in southern-ish Idaho, but they don't seem to thrive or ripen properly. I had assumed that was due to insufficient water, but now I think it has more to do with the land being over-farmed and sickened by chemicals. I will try to start a few plants in a fertile area on BLM land.