Ground cherries

Peel off the husks ground cherries and you'll find fruit that's a mix of tart and sweet. (Ann Summa)

At Wattles Farm, the community garden in Hollywood, Gina Thomas pointed out a cluster of tiny, husk-enclosed ground cherries hidden among the foliage. Some were no bigger than marbles.

"It comes from South America," she said, adding that one Wattles gardener from Poland makes pies out of the cherries. "They look like tomatillos but are sweet and tart at the same time -- the crunchiness of a tomato with the sweetness of a cherry. The very yellow ones are the sweetest."

But be warned: The leaves and unripened fruit are toxic. Ground cherries (Physalis peruviana) are nightshade plants, after all.

Like tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), ground cherries sprawl as they grow, sending out fruit enclosed within a protective papery husk, an enclosing cape. (Another common name for ground cherries is cape gooseberry, although it's not at all related to the better-known gooseberry that grows on a shrub.)

Once ripe, the ground cherries drop on the ground -- sometimes as many as 300 from a single plant. Gardeners sometimes place tarps or blankets under plants to catch the harvest.

Left in the husk, ground cherries keep for several months. Most people wait a week or so before taking off the husk. The "cherry" will shift from pale yellow to yellow-orange, at which point it’s ready to eat. With husks removed, ground cherries freeze well.

One of the most popular plants is a Polish variety, Aunt Molly’s (Physalis priunosa), available in seed from www.seedsavers.org or www.territorialseed.com. It tastes like a combination of pineapple and vanilla. The cherries are eaten raw in salads or baked into tarts and petits fours. Thanks to a high pectin content, they are great in pies and jams.

Plant the seedlings deep, like tomatoes. You'll need at least two plants, so they can fertilize each other. Each will take a couple of inches of water a week and benefit from hot days and a shot of diluted fish emulsion, applied after flowering.

Although they're annuals in colder climates, the ones at Wattles were turning into perennials, said Thomas, a rare-fruit enthusiast. She said the plants lasted though the winter and sent up volunteers in the neighboring plots.

"It's an aggressive plant," she said with a smile.

I hope so. In the best circumstances they can take more than 2 1/2 months, longer in a cool summer. I put some volunteers that Thomas gave me into the ground in April and have yet to see a flower.

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for Gardening in the West. Email: home@latimes.com.

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