When most fruit has been produced by summer berries here in the UK, this one berry is ready for picking in November and December. For this reason alone, it is worth growing this gorgeous plant, whose understated flowers bloom from late in our autumn throughout the winter months.
Once pollinated, they produce edible berries that UK chefs love to place as edible decoration or as the finishing touch to an haute cuisine dish. It can grow to a large shrub size and produce many bunches of fruit, encased in a calyx that becomes transparent as it ages. Here’s how to grow it!
Where does it grow?
As reflected in its Latin name Physalis peruviana, this plant’s habitat is high mountainsides in woodland areas in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. Although it is native to South America, it has proved to be very adaptable to many environments, and it now grows as an introduced plant from Australia to India.
Its bright orange berries are called Inca berry, groundcherry, husk cherry, and poha berry. It is not only grown for its tasty fruit. This plant is also grown for ornamental use in flower arranging or to add decorative bright colour to a winter flower bed. Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekeng) and Cape Gooseberry are part of the same family, the nightshade Solanaceae group.
Many UK gardeners know the berries of Deadly Nightshade and would know never to eat them, as they are poisonous. However, their Peruvian cousin can be eaten as long as the flesh has turned from green to bright orange. This plant is also closely related to the tomato plant, and its fruit is not unlike a ripe cherry tomato, although the sweetness of the Cape Gooseberry is unique. Different varieties of the plant offer different tastes to the berries – see more about these below. Both tomatoes and this plant show lots of seeds when cut open. The seeds of Cape Gooseberry have been shown to be rich in linoleic acid, and they are processed into oil in some countries.
In India, Cape Gooseberry grows freely all over the mountainous regions, up to 6,000 feet above sea level, in Bengal and eastern and northern regions, where it is harvested as a commercial crop. Although its common name, Cape Gooseberry, may refer to the Cape of Good Hope, it is not actually a native of South Africa. In fact, it is not related to the gooseberry at all so its name is interesting for any gardener!
This plant is wonderful for high areas. In Latin America, it grows as high as 3000 m (9,800 feet) but it has adapted to many different environments worldwide. It seems to be as happy growing in New Zealand and Australia as in India, where the temperatures are much higher than its native habitat and it thrives even here in the less exotic UK.
The History of the Cape Gooseberry
This plant was growing in the UK as early as 1774, and it is recorded as having been taken by settlers to South Africa. Some surmise that the “cape” part of the name may refer to the transparent, protective lantern-shaped covering of the berry which continues to remain in place right through to the ripening of the fruit. Cape Gooseberry has many different names worldwide, including groundcherries and poha and the Latin variations include Physalis Alkekengi pubescens Moench, Boberella peruviana (L.) E.H.L. Krause, Physalis esculenta Salisb, Physalis latifolia Lam., Physalis tomentosa Medik. Its original classification is Physalis peruviana. It has been used in indigenous medicine in several countries for treating jaundice and as an anti-inflammatory agent.
This plant is a sun lover! If you plant it indoors initially and then move it outdoors in hot, sunny weather, it will reward you with large, velvety soft, heart-shaped leaves and the most gorgeous blooms that are not very well known to gardeners here in the UK. It adores full sun but it has self-seeded itself in shady areas of my garden and I dig these up to take indoors for winter. In my experience, it will grow well almost anywhere in the UK, provided it is protected from frost which will cause the leaves to blacken and the whole plant will die off.
Soil: It thrives in well-drained soil in a sunny location. Cape Gooseberry will not produce many leaves if you water it too much. It tends to sulk and droop so my advice is to water little and to test the soil before you water. The plant is classed as invasive in Hawaii and some areas of the Pacific because it is perennial in hot locations but there is little chance of this happening here in our chilly winters!
Plant seeds in damp compost and usually germination is slow but the little plants arrive after about 10-15 days. After all danger of frost has passed, you can plant out your seedlings and stake them when planting, as they can grow to over 3 feet in height. It also spread sideways, so if you are planting a row of them, allow at least 1 foot (30 cm) between each plant.
You can take cuttings for the winter if you leave them outside but it is unlikely to survive frost or snow. Cuttings are easy if you place a branch in water, roots soon appear. You can also divide the roots to make several new plants.
Hardiness. Not hardy in the UK, although plants may survive in a mild winter in the south or southeast. It is best to either take the plant indoors or to protect it with bubble wrap or fabric when frost is predicted.
Watering. Water it in well when it is first planted into the ground. In heatwaves, the leaves may droop and they will need a good watering. In general, this is not a very thirsty plant until it starts flowering and fruiting when regular watering will allow the fruit to swell. Water it weekly in summer and a little bit more if you notice the leaves drooping in a warm, sunny autumn.
Different varieties to try
Physalis comes in various types, some are bred for early ripening while others are bred to produce a high yield of fruit. They vary in size so before choosing your seeds, make sure you estimate the finished height and spread of the plant and allow it plenty of room to expand in your border. They grow well in pots indoors but they do not enjoy water-logged soil so ensure good drainage and do not let the plants it with water in the tray.
- Inca Plum plants have a really good harvest of berries and they ripen to an orange cherry-sized fruit, with a good flavour.
- Lady Madonna has yellower berries when ripe than Inca Plum and the pods are unusually long. It can grow to a good height of 4-5 feet (150cm). It does not tolerate shade so well so make sure it is a sunny location.
- Preciosa means precious in Spanish and this term of endearment is usually applied to loved ones or gorgeous locations. The advantage of this variety is that it is small and will produce early berries which can ripen as soon as early September. At that stage, I still have late raspberries, apples, and passion fruit so I prefer a later harvest but if you want early berries in a pot, this variety is certainly recommended.
A first warning is that green, unripe berries are toxic if consumed! Developing berries can be checked for ripeness by opening the papery lantern that surrounds them. If the berry still seems green, do not consume it. Leave the lantern intact and allow it to turn to a bright orange before it is safe to eat. Just leave it in a sunny position to ripen. To me, they taste like a fruity tomato with a sweet aftertaste. They also make great juice if you get a glut of berries. Cape Gooseberry berries contain Vitamin A, B1, B2, B3, and C with calcium, iron, and phosphorus. The berries are low in calories and high in vitamin A and the seeds are a fantastic source of linoleic acid. These seeds can be processed into linoleic acid and nutritionists recommend replacing some of the saturated fats in normal diets with food rich in linoleic acid, as it is very useful in diets to aid heart health. So they are tasty and good for you!
Pests and diseases.
In the UK you may find the occasional slug or snail feasting on its leaves but these plants are not a favorite of these garden pests. In other countries such as South Africa, it is reported that cutworms are a pest but that does not seem to be the case in the UK. There are so many seeds in one fruit that if they drop to the ground, there are multiple plants to eat and birds will try to eat your precious berries if you leave the plant to grow wild but indoors you will not have that problem. Hares and rabbits may damage very young plants in the wild, if you have many of these in your area.
Some medicinal uses.
– In Kerala in southern India, the plant was used to keep jaundice at bay by the Muthuvan tribes and Tamilian people and scientific tests have confirmed this use in tests.
– The “Encyclopaedia of Indian Medicine” states that when the leaves are mixed with mustard oil and water, this can be used to cure earaches.
– Worldwide many studies have been undertaken to determine the anti-inflammatory properties of this plant. In Taiwan, researchers showed that extracts of the fruit inhibit growth in cancer cells in the lungs and other studies show that the berries regulate cholesterol levels.
If you have never heard of this Peruvian plant, now is the tie to buy some seeds! This has to be one of my favourite flowers to have on a winter windowsill, providing me with heart-shaped foliage and yellow flowers at a time when little is in bloom. An added attraction is how easy it is to grow. I adore the soft leaves, the bright orange fruit, and the transparent protective lantern that surrounds the fruit. They provide a welcome source of nutrition at a time when little else can be produced here in the UK and their use worldwide as an anti-inflammatory, as an aid to ward off jaundice and their low-calorie content means I can munch happily on these berries as a fresh and tasty addition to my winter diet.