Ground Cherries Sweet Little Husk Tomatoes In A Paper Shell

An Amish man shared a new vegetable with us a few years ago. We were at a farmer’s market appreciating the colorful selection of peppers and tomatoes when we came across something we had never seen.

(Photos taken 31 August 2011. Click on any picture to see a larger image.)

Paper sheaths the husk tomatoes.
Paper sheaths the husk tomatoes.

This new fruit was like a small Chinese paper lantern with a very small yellow tomato inside. The little round fruit is like a tomato about the size of a large pea. Just pull back the edges of the papery shell and eat the fruit or pluck it off the stem. Put the paper sheath and stem in your compost bin.

Peel back the paper husk to reveal the tiny yellow tomato.
Peel back the paper husk to reveal the tiny yellow tomato. The yellow fruits on the left are ready to eat, but the greenish ones on the right should get a little riper first.

Ground cherry is the right name for these little fruits because the taste is surprisingly sweet. They’re sweet enough that the little yellow fruits are often used to make jams, jellies and pies.

Ground Cherries are also called Husk-Tomatoes. We bought a couple of plants a few years ago for the garden. They’ve dropped seeds every year since and come back to produce an abundance of fruit. It’s important to have more than one plant for fruit production, so make sure that you grow two or more plants. The individual plants don’t self-fertilize so with only one plant there is little hope of fruiting.

Husk tomatoes on the vine.
Husk tomatoes on the vine. Note the single flower, the outline of the leaves, and the green color of the paper shell.
Close-up showing the husk tomato paper sheath, light-colored bell-shaped flower with a dark center, and overall fuzziness of the plant.
Close-up showing the husk tomato paper sheath, light-colored bell-shaped flower with a dark center, and overall fuzziness of the plant.

Our variety is an Amish heirloom type that was simply labeled as ground cherry (husk tomato). There are over a dozen species of Physalis native to Northeast USA, so it’s hard to say exactly which species we have. It may be the Strawberry-Tomato, Physalis pruinosa, judging by the leaf shape with scalloped edges and a heart-shaped base, and mature fruit that is yellow. Other varieties include ones that have more or less downy or hairy stems and fruit that may be reddish or purple in color in addition to the yellow that ours gives. Take caution: the green unripe fruit is poisonous.

Leaves are scalloped with irregular teeth and often have a heart-shaped based, but not always.
Leaves are scalloped with irregular teeth and often have a heart-shaped based, but not always. Stem ribbing is purple and the leaves are a lighter green on the underside.

The plant will often drop fruit before it’s ripe, but the fruit will ripen on the ground inside its protective husk. The paper husk turns from green to yellow to tan as the fruit ripens. Sometimes you’ll see the paper of the husk getting thin, but the fruit will have been protected for many days and most likely still fine to eat. If left too long, the insects will find it or the seeds will re-emerge as next season’s plants.

In central Pennsylvania we get to enjoy the harvest of husk tomatoes from August through September and part of October until the frost comes.

If anyone wants some husk tomato seeds or ground cherry seeds, we have some to exchange or via paypal. Contact wilde at wildeherb dot com.

14 thoughts on “Ground Cherries Sweet Little Husk Tomatoes In A Paper Shell”

  1. What do I do to get some seeds? Dont need many at all. I am an experienced home grower. thanks…Alex

  2. I have lots of ground cherry seeds. send me a return email and we can set it up – you can have them right away.

  3. Hi, I fell in love with these tomatoes last year when my daughter brought me some for my birthday in September that she had gotten at a farmer’s market in Maine. I cannot find the seeds. Where can I get the seeds? Thank you, SS

  4. Yes! They are delicious and sweet. :) Since we missed them this year we’ll be looking for them next Spring, too. I’ll post here again whenever I can find more. We’re hopeful for next year’s crop so visit back then!

  5. I pick up a plant in the tomato section and it bloomed a “paper shell” shaped like a
    “hot air balloon”. Inside the paper shell a small green…looks like..the small tomato grew into a larger tomato and caused the paper shell to break away…..never seen a tomato plant like this….not sure it is a tomato plant.

    Do you know what it is?

    Thank You
    Debbie Leonard

  6. Hi Debbie,

    Your plant could be either a ground cherry like you see in this post above or a tomatillo which some call a ‘green tomato’, see this other post: Tomatillos.

    How big did the tomato get? If it grew larger than an inch in diameter it was a tomatillo for sure. If the fruit was smaller then it could have been a tomatillo or ground cherry.

    Did you get a lot of fruit?

  7. First had these last August at a local outdoor market in
    California. Then, lo and behold, last week they were in the market here in Cochabamba, Bolivia!!!

  8. Was just out pulling some “weeds” in my retaining wall and found these babies. Yummy. There are quite a few already on the ground so those are the safe ones to eat?? Or if the husks turned tan but are still on the plant and the fruit inside is no longer green they are safe too? Thanks, Cati

  9. Hey! Glad you found some yummies – aren’t these little weeds tasty?

    Any of the ground cherries that have turned all yellow are safe to eat. Most of the ripe ones will be on the ground, but some will still cling to the vines when no longer green and ready to eat.

    I’m curious if you had them planted nearby at one time or if you were just the lucky recipient of a passing bird? At any rate leave some fruit on the ground for next year’s crop!

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