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Ground Cherries in the Prairie Garden

I have the most lovely row of ground cherries growing in my prairie garden this summer. Ground cherries are a niche crop, much confused, even by nurseries. This year I observed flats of ground cherries in one greenhouse that bore, simultaneously, the labels “Ground Cherry,” “Tomatillo,” and “Tomato.” Lots of confusion there, although all three are members of the nightshade family.

Still, there are enough ground cherry aficionados in North Dakota that — let the buyer beware! — you can get seedlings from local nurseries. Some will say, why bother? Ground cherries reseed themselves and come up volunteer. The answer is, I have ground cherries, tomatillos, and tomatoes all coming up volunteer, have trouble telling them apart when tiny, and so need to plant known seedlings.

Consulting known botanical authorities, an ordinary prairie gardener like me gets even more confused. Ground cherries are of the genus Physalis, all agree. O. A. Stevens, in his classic Handbook of North Dakota Plants, gives three species. The compendious Flora of the Great Plains gives eight, but stipulates the authors have excluded P. ixocarpa Brot. ex Hornem, sometimes called “the strawberry tomato,” the ground cherry grown in gardens, because it does not grow wild.

Ground cherries were present in prairie gardens quite early in the settlement era, but were objects of confusion from the start. In 1861 a woman in Brownville, Nebraska, complained to the press she had been “humbugged” by a seed supplier that sold her seed for a “strawberry tomato” that turned out to be a ground cherry. An editor explained they were the same thing.

(That label, “strawberry tomato,” puzzles me, as it derives from a contention at the time that ground cherries tasted like strawberries. They do not; when used for baking, their taste is decidedly peachy.)

Meanwhile, ground cherry culture already had hopped over the Great Plains and taken root in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, seed no doubt traveling there in Mormon handcarts. I find newspaper advertisements from Montana mining caps in the mid-1860s listing fruits from Salt Lake, and among them are ground cherries sold by the pound.

Ground cherries of the culinary variety came to the Great Plains out of the states of the Mississippi River valley and, because of Willa Cather, hold literary place here. In her first Nebraska novel, O Pioneers!, the Swedish immigrant woman, Mrs. Bergson, makes “a yellow jam of the insipid ground cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon peel.” Here I think Cather is voicing the immigrant sensibility when she calls ground cherries “insipid;” for a first-generation Swede, prairie things are interior.

Later, in My Antonia, ground cherries grace one of the more luminous and mystic passages of Cather’s great prairie novel. The narrator, Jim Burden, recalls that he stretched out in the growing garden “and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few.”

After partaking of the ground cherries, Jim becomes one with the grasshoppers and gophers and the prairie wind, observing, “At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

I cannot promise any such sacramental effect from consuming ground cherries, but we of the settler society on the prairies have been growing and eating them from the beginning, and so pretty soon I’ll tell you about that.

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