GOOD AS GOLD
In a quest for a diverse and productive fruit garden, an Illinois farmer turns to old-fashioned but reliable ground cherries.
Ground cherries lend sweetness to our enticing recipes, including muffins, a tart, and salsa. These native fruits are as easy to grow as they are to eat—which is why a smart Illinois fruit grower includes the old-fashioned plants among her crops.
Golden pearls of fruit hidden in pleated papery husks help Teresa Brockman meet a significant goal for her central Illinois farm: to grow as many kinds of fruit as possible in her Zone 5 climate. Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa), harvested in late summer and eaten fresh out of hand or cooked into jam, tarts, and other desserts, have become a customer favorite. “I love bringing unusual fruits and herbs to the market and introducing people to something new,” Teresa says. “Ground cherries are one of our native fruits, along with pawpaws and persimmons, that almost no one has heard of, let alone tasted.”
The shining little fruits range in color from yellow to amber, with homespun variety names such as Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry, Humphrey’s, and Loewen Family Heirloom.
Ground cherries are related to tomatillos and look similar, but they are smaller and have a sunnier color. The husked fruits fall to the ground when they are ripe, and as long as they remain in their papery “wrappers” the sweet fruits keep remarkably well. Ground cherries taste a bit like pineapple but without the acidity. Teresa’s customers have come up with all kinds of flavor descriptors: “pineapple-y and nutty being the most common,” she says, “but also peach, citrus, jackfruit, and even corn!” Easily grown from seed, ground cherries can be planted outdoors in spring, but to gain a longer harvest period Teresa sows them indoors or in her greenhouse about eight weeks before planting them out after the danger of frost is past. The plants love hot, humid weather and grow quickly through midsummer, producing ripe fruit in August.
Aside from the fun of sharing unusual fruits and flavors, Teresa has practical reasons to grow 80-plus varieties of more than 20 species of fruits on her farm of fewer than 2 acres. “Ecologically, it is more stable to mimic nature with her wide diversity,” she says, referring to her experiences of limited problems with diseases, insects, and soil nutrients. Economically, a diverse farm can also reduce financial risks. “For example, last year we had our worst strawberry season ever. If I only grew strawberries, I would have made no money. If I had two bad years, I would be out of business. But since I have several other
flavor descriptors: “pineapple-y and nutty being the most common, but also peach, citrus, jackfruit, and even corn!” – Teresa Brockman
crops that did extremely well, including blueberries, apples, blackberries, and ground cherries … we had one of our best years yet!”
Teresa grew up in a gardening family but didn’t become a farmer until moving to Eureka, Illinois, in 2000. Her brother, Henry, farmed full-time and told her that his customers wanted locally grown organic fruit. Teresa thought growing fruit would allow her the flexibility in her schedule she needed to raise her daughters. Farming also answered another call. “I had always had an almost physical need for an orchard,” she says. Childhood memories of an elderly neighbor’s yard filled with fruit trees and vegetable beds and Englishstyle flower plantings—complete with a path to a secluded bench among flowering shrubs—kept the dream of a diverse and productive garden close to her heart. “I’ve always thought that I’d like to be buried under an apple tree, and the idea that my grandchildren can walk through my orchard and say ‘Grandma Teresa planted these trees’ makes me feel good,” she says. These days Teresa grows and harvests fruits in a rainbow of colors and flavors on her farm, such as apples, pears, kiwi berries, grapes, blackberries, raspberries, and so much more—including sweet, golden ground cherries. It’s all good.
1. Ground cherries love hot humid weather, and if grown from transplants, they usually flower and fruit beginning in late July. 2. Two of Teresa’s goats, Bambi and Batman, are happy to accept ground cherry treats. 3. In late August, Teresa’s diverse farm offerings include grapes, aronia berries, apples, Asian pears, and blackberries, in addition to ground cherries. 4. Ground cherries fall from the plant when ripe, so harvesting is a matter of picking them up. The plants will produce fruit continuously until the first frost of autumn.
3 1. Flavorful ground cherries grow inside an inedible papery husk that is easily removed. “They are the ideal snack or travel food because they do not need to be refrigerated and they come in their own little packages!” farmer Teresa Brockman says. “They are great to take in your bag lunch or on a car or plane trip.” 2. Teresa Brockman and Michael Haury live and farm on the outskirts of Eureka, Illinois, near Peoria. 3. The plants readily reseed themselves, but Teresa controls seedlings by hoeing, and she sets out transplants in mid-may to gain an earlier harvest. The rows are mulched with straw to make harvesting easier.