Hartley Magazine

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Cape Gooseberries and Friends

Now I must admit these are not the most attractive nor compact of plants however the Physalis family are exceptionally valuable subjects for growing under cover. Closely related to tomatoes but never suffering any of their problems these are surprisingly easy to cultivate and one can even substitute for a tomato crop.

The best known Physalis is peruviana from Peru and though called the Cape Gooseberry that is not after the Cape Horn of South America but from the Cape of Good Hope as this berry was once much grown in South Africa and was exported here as jam. These are now sold in supermarkets (usually under-ripe and thus rather acidic, without the full flavour) and are most distinctive in their papery husks so are often used as garnishes. The Cape Gooseberry inside the poisonous husk is orange, very tasty and full of vitamins. (They much resemble buff Chinese Lanterns, the hardy garden ‘flower’ which has bright orangey red coloured husks and a less edible berry).

Their pale yellow flowers are pretty, but small and since they don‘t appear in great numbers, they have little impact. The leaves are soft and were once used as toilet paper. Easily grown from seed these plants are not particular to growing conditions but slow to crop ripening very late in autumn. Indeed if left to hang, they keep till after the New Year. They drop when really ripe, then the husk preserves them and they slowly dry to tasty ‘raisins’. If you overwinter plants the next year‘s crop comes much earlier, you can also root cuttings in late summer and overwinter these instead. They can be cropped in the border or are more controllable in large pots in any reasonable compost, they require canes or strings to support their long straggly stems. Nearly hardy, they do not need much heat only frost free conditions. Very similar in almost every way is P. ixocarpa, the Jamberry, this is much bigger berried often splitting its husk and comes in green and purple varieties.

These can be made, as the name suggests, into jam (with sugar and lemon) and are an absolute essential for authentic salsa dishes, and they can also be used just like tomatoes. There is also a small annual species, P. pruinosa, the Cossack Ground Cherry, grown much like dwarf bush tomatoes these produce huge numbers of smaller berries, greenish yellow with a distinct pineapple flavour.