Physalis

Short version:

A yellow berry that grows inside an attractive case. It has seeds like a tomato and tastes sweet when ripe with a pineapple like tang. The plant grows up to 5 feet tall, prefers full sun but is not particularly fussy about soil types. It can be perennial when protected in winter and self-seeds in an unpredictable (I’ll explain what I mean) but not overly aggressive way.

I’m calling it physalis through this page but I’m are specifically talking about Physalis Peruviana. Also called cape gooseberry, Inca berry or ground cherry. There are other physalis – like Chinese lanterns – which, though beautiful, are not particularly edible.

Physalis is a fruit that is occasionally found in supermarkets or sitting proudly on top of your dessert in a posh restaurant. They look lovely and taste great.

I planted seeds in 2014, in a pot, in our last home which was a paved over yard. The extra heat from all the concrete provided a great environment for the ripening of the fruit. I haven’t had to sow seeds again since. It is usually annual when grown outdoors in the UK. With winter protection and/or mild winters it can be a perennial.

Sowing seeds

You can start them indoors in pots around a month and a half before the last frosts are expected. They need to be sown fairly shallow (just place on the surface and sprinkle a little bit of compost over the top), then kept warm and moist. I would suggest one seed per pot as it can become quite a monster, unless you’re happy to plant a few together and then only let the strongest one live. I find it really hard to not feel guilty killing healthy plants. Can you imagine taking that attitude towards pets or children?

Planting out

Once all danger of frost has passed and the plant has a few leaves you can plant in a sunny spot. It doesn’t seem to be too bothered with soil types and does fine in a large pot. It is advisable to harden them off by placing the plants outside during the day and bringing them back in for the night for a few days. The stems can grow tall but will fall over and sprawl if not supported.

This monster is one single plant in a border in my front garden. It has reached over 5ft. At the front and to the right you can see the stems have fallen over in a bid to take over.

Taste

Okay… so I did these first two steps in 2014. I wasn’t sure what to expect so I planted about 8 seeds. I ended up with far too many plants. If you have too many plants in a pot, they won’t grow particularly large (around 2 ft) but you will still get fruit. They were a bit of an unruly, bushy mass which was a welcome sight in my paved yard.

The berries grow inside green cases which turn yellow and papery. That’s when you know that they’re ripe and edible. They make me think of bananas. Not because of the taste, but because these lovely cases keep the fruit clean so even when the fruit has dropped it can be removed from their protective husk and eaten straight away. My little one loves foraging for ripe berries as we leave for school or come home. She sometimes stuffs them in her pocket for a snack later. The fruit tastes only very slightly like pineapples, with that tart pineapple tang. When very ripe they are lovely and sweet. I don’t really think that I have anything to compare them to. There are hard little seeds similar in size to tomatoes that I like to chew, but some people don’t appreciate them so much. There can be a bit of a bitter residue on the outside of the berry that comes from the papery case, reminiscent of earwax (I don’t eat earwax – but who didn’t taste their own as a child? Er…Only me? OK). If you wash the whole thing with the cases on, this taste becomes more prominent so – dehusk and wash the berries separately. I’ve read the residue comes off more easily with a bit of vinegar (so… really… quite earwax like no?) but they never make it as far as the kitchen in this house. We’ve found that the berries ripen gradually over about 1-2 months, depending on the weather so we pick them as they ripen and eat them straight away. Towards the end of the season you will probably experience a glut.   

Self-seeding

So… as I’ve said, I planted it once. The next year I wasn’t going to grow them as we only had this tiny yard and a finite number of pots. I was going to try something else but in 2015 they came up through cracks in the pavement. One was in front of the bike shed so I rescued that and put it in a pot. The rest I just let them get on with it. They grew fine and we had some bonus unplanned fruit. This is how I knew it was resilient and would grow just about anywhere. These plants were only in part sun and still did OK.

In 2016 I had the baby to deal with and so neglected the garden a bit more. There were no new seedlings that year, but the one in the pot from the previous year grew back. It must have been in a particularly warm and sheltered spot as there were no other plants.

In 2017 we moved house and took a self-seeded one in a pot with us. It was probably too small a pot, didn’t like the move, the lack of water or in fact the complete neglect as it only gave us about 5 berries.

In 2018 there was nothing. I didn’t expect anything with so little fruit the previous year and therefore no chance of a stray berry self-seeding itself.

In the spring of 2019 in one of the pots a physalis plant turned up. I was very excited. Around 25 pots of various sizes came with us in the move. Most of the plants were in pots in preparation to be planted into the new garden. One or two plants have remained in their pots and the compost in the pots have generally been moved around and/or added to the compost bin every now and then. I guess there was a seed that hadn’t germinated that had received its ideal conditions this year. The spring was warm, and the seed must have made it close to the surface of the soil. I put it straight into the front garden where it received plenty of sun and the concrete slabs and adjacent brick wall would retain and reflect the heat.

I then found a single physalis seedling hiding in the asparagus patch in June. The asparagus is at the very end of the garden, nowhere near the pots. It was a bit of a puzzler, but I realised that that particular asparagus crown was planted in a very, very (asparagus doesn’t tend to do so well in pots) big pot in the previous garden when the physalis were triffid-like. I don’t know how many years that seed was dormant. It could be anything from 3-5 years. It won’t mature in time to product fruit this year so I’ve put it in a pot and intend overwinter it in the house and see how it goes next year.

Therefore, I think it’s a wonderful resilient plant that self-seeds, but not too rampantly and can be perennial if kept warm enough and frost free.    

Pollination

The flowers are hermaphrodite and easily pollinated by insects. I have never had to do anything to help it along. They are evidently self-fertile as I only have the one mature plant this year and it’s fruiting wonderfully. The plant has been merrily self-seeding and I haven’t noticed a change in the fruit. Therefore the seeds are true to the parent plant so this is a berry that you can save seeds from.

Diseases and pests

So far in my experiences with physalis – one year I had problems with two tone spider mites. The leaves developed a mottled yellow and brown appearance. If you do have these spider mites – when you look underneath the leaves with a microscope you’ll see these tiny mites with these two spots on their backs about the size of a fine grain of sand. They are very hard to get rid of. You’ll need to remove and destroy any leaves that are affected. We tried a spray with a few drops of rosemary oil in it. I think in the end we kept them at bay by removing leaves and spraying twice a couple of weeks apart. To be honest I can’t be certain how much the rosemary oil helped. It may have been the removal of about half of the leaves and dampening the plant that did it, as they thrive in hot, dry conditions.

Otherwise the plants haven’t had any issues. They seems very easy to care for.

Therefore this plant with the soft velvety leaves is a winner in my opinion. I’ll overwinter the random asparagus invader and maybe keep it in a pot to take in again next winter to see how long it’ll survive for. I’ll also keep seeds from a berry in case I want to grow them again and the unpredictability of the self seeding doesn’t go in my favour one year. I suspect it will remain a firm favourite with my little one and I won’t have to pay through the teeth to buy them in the supermarket.

They take so little care that if you’ve eaten the fruit before and are a fan, and you have a garden of any sorts, please please do give these a go… or… a grow! Tee hee.

3 thoughts on “Physalis

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