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.

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

  1. We planted some seeds last year and plants did reasonable well. However this year we have far more plants where they have reseeded themselves both in tunnel and out in garden. are there any recipes for using them.We find seeds are very small and you would not notice them at all. Thanks Marion.

  2. Hi Marion!

    We typically eat the ground cherries out of hand. Or pick up a bunch to bring in the kitchen, but they always get nibbled up too fast.

    Some people make jellies and pies with these sweet little guys, but I’m afraid I don’t have any tips in this area. Maybe some readers here can chime in on other ways they use ’em. Good luck on the search!

  3. Hi Scott,

    I don’t often seen transplants for sale – perhaps in an Amish area – so seeds are the best way to go to make sure you can grow some ground cherries next year.

    There are still some seeds available from a harvest we had the year before last and the seeds should store for a few years ok. Here’s the link:

    Buy Ground Cherry Seeds Here

    We’d love to know how your garden turns out so come on back and let us know! Great!

  4. …how may one acquire the seeds??? …what is the best planting instructions and care…how do you determine which fruit is poisonous???

  5. Hey Domenic!

    Sorry, we sold out of our seeds a while back. I’m not sure how else to get them but I’m trying to source some locally. Check back in a couple months for a new seed selection. Thanks!

    Oh, just don’t eat the green ones!

  6. They look like tomatillos, are they related? I have 8 ft high tomatillo plants in my garden right now. The flowers and husks look very much like them (tomatillos).

  7. Hi Colleen,

    Yes! Tomatillos are closely related to the little husk tomato. They’re members of the same genus and the tomatillo is known as Physalis philadelphica in botany speak.

    They do look a lot alike, but tastes are quite different. I would say the tomatillo is savory and hearty while the ground cherries are sweet and juicy.

    How do you use your tomatillos?

  8. Thanks so much, Mayor! It’s always nice to have options of places to go searching for that favorite plant. Ken’s Gardens looks very inviting!

  9. I can’t tell you how glad I was to find this post. Inexplicably, I have three of these plants growing in raised beds that I did not plant! They just sprouted with everything else. I planted bee balm in various places and assumed that’s what it was until it was evident that it looked nothing like bee balm. I’m glad I didn’t pull it up! Can’t wait to see how the fruit turns out.

  10. Those silly birds! Or squirrels, or wind. The only thing you might not like about the ground cherry plants popping up in your flower beds is how big they can get. Could the bee balm seed have been contaminated?

    Thanks for posting and enjoy the bounty, Michelle!

  11. I am so happy to have found this site. My pepere (grandfather) used to get these out of his garden when i was very young. I never knew what they were called. He didn’t have a lot if them but he always saved them for me. He only gave me them when they were yellow. I had no idea green ones were poisonous.
    I live in Rhode Island and would love to find some in this area.

  12. Hi Aline!
    We look forward to these delicious treats every summer.
    If you can’t find some ground cherries in your area, come back here in the fall when we’ll have seeds for sale. You could plant your own for next year!

  13. I’m so glad I seen this post cause I also have these sprouting up in my vegetable garden and did not plant them , we did squished one of the green ones between our fingers to smell it and it smelled like a tomato. I would of thought the green ones were the ones to eat not the yellow ones that look like it’s all dried up. So thank you for letting me know the green ones are poisonous.

  14. Wow, Jean! You’re lucky to have these appear in your garden out of nowhere. Have you been able to eat any golden ones yet? In what state are you located?

  15. In our province in the Philippines we just play with it as we thought it’s only one kind of a grass that grows in the backyard

  16. Hi Mae,
    Maybe you’re thinking of something else…husk tomatoes don’t really look like a grass to me.
    But, then again, I’ve never been to the Philippines!
    Thanks for stopping by….

  17. We’ve found some growing along the trails going out to the beach in Florida. Thought they resembled the tomatillos but had never seen a yellow tomato.

  18. Hey Gail!

    Did you eat any? If they’re not ready, as in dropping on the ground, go back and give them a try. They’re really delicious.

    It’s so neat you found them growing on a trail to the beach! Thanks for sharing.

  19. Hey Clash-of-ClanWar!

    I just now saw this comment! Have you had success with your husk tomatoes? It’s great that you tried them in a hydroponic setup – did you get fruit? So curious.
    I agree they are addicting. 🙂

  20. I bought seeds when I saw them for the first time at one of our local greenhouses here in Calgary. I had never heard or seen them and thought I’d try and it took many tries to get the seeds to grow but now they are doing great with lots of fruit growing in the little paper husks. I started them indoors in April and only a few survived. Can’t wait to nibble them.

  21. That’s great, Shirley!
    I actually haven’t eaten any for a couple of years. I hope to find some at our local Amish vegetable stand – soon!
    Let us know next year if the plants resurface and you’re lucky a second time around. 🙂

  22. How would I transplant the plants from my garden area? I just discovered these little delights this year.

    I am in Georgia, and we have hot temps here until October.

    Thank you.

  23. Hi Melissa!

    You’re lucky to find these gems. I would leave them in the garden and harvest everything, keeping a few fruits for seeds for next year.
    I have no experience transplanting or growing indoors, if that’s what you’re wanting to do.
    I would expect the plants to grow a lot by October, so have fun!

  24. Melissa I transplant them all the time. They are shallow rooted just dig them up with a spading fork and include some dirt. Put them in a pre-watered hole and water once in a while for the next week. These guys are almost weeds. Let the fruit drop off rather than pick them to get them ripest and also to seed for the next year. Once you have them they never go away

  25. Great advice, Jim!

    One thing I could add is to find a spot with 6+ hours sun for your transplants.

    Our plants faded out and I attribute that to a little too much shade as we’re in the middle of a forest! Se stopped trying to grow tomatoes here for that reason. Lettuces, peas and beans can do quite well though.

  26. Martha

    I have what I thought was a tomatillo plant and I have been waiting for them to get larger. The fruit is the size of a dime and there are husk on them. The rain and wind drop a lot of the fruit. The husks are tan, or yellow, or green. The more that I read your article I think I must have a ground cherry. I don’t have many of the yellow ones most are green husk and fruit. Do you know if I let the green ones set out for some time will they turn yellow. Can you do any thing with the green ones to use them?

  27. If there are dime-sized yellow (=ripe) fruits, I think you have a ground cherry too, Martha!

    The green ones I have just tossed back on the ground to let them ripen, if possible. These little huskers seem to be generous with their fruiting so I’m not totally sure if the green ones did ripen. There were lots of yellow ones to pick up. But I don’t remember a bunch of green fruit left on the ground at the end of the season either. Good luck!

    Did you eat one yet?

  28. i got some from a friend im trying to grow them in a planter on my deck hopefuly they will grow

  29. Don’t worry about it Lin. The amount of any poison goes with the dose, so if you ate a basket full I’d worry. But just a couple of green ones wont kill ya!
    BTW, how did it taste? Sour?

    Toxic compounds present in the ground cherry are solanine and solanidine. All parts of the plant are poisonous except for the ripe golden fruit. If too much is ingested a person might experience nausea, cramps or diarrhea.

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