Thursday, September 30, 2010
Ground Cherries and Sunberries
As I was planning out the summer version of my container garden this year, I asked myself the question “how can I have FRUIT?” I plant lots of greens in the spring and fall, and I always have plenty of aromatics, but my family is particularly fond of fruit, and summer is the season for lots of fruit. The problem for me, constrained to a container garden as I am, is that most fruit takes up lots of space. Make a list of all of the fruit you can possibly grow in a temperate climate, and you will find that a very large percentage grows on trees (apples, peaches,etc.), bushes (blueberries, raspberries, etc.), or vines (grapes, kiwi, etc.). All of these are perennials and take lots of space and time. Then you have the cucurbits (melon, cucumber, squash). Those are annuals that produce lots of fruit, but with the exception of a few cultivars specially bred for containers, most are sprawling vines that take lots and lots of space. At my house, anything that ventures beyond the safe confines of the actual container gets eaten by the local wildlife.
The problem comes from the energy expenditure required to make fruit. Sunlight is used to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar, and that is done in the leaves. The more fruit you have, the more sugar you need, the more leaf surface area you need. So fruit-producing plants tend to be large.
I decided this year to try something new and see if I could find a fruit that was an annual but didn’t take up too much space, and the deadly nightshade family seemed a good place to start. After all, the nightshades are known for medium-sized plants that produce an abundance of fruit. The only problem is that the majority of the plants in the nightshade family produce fruit that, botanically speaking, is fruit, but culinarily speaking is considered a vegetable. Tomatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, and peppers are all nightshades. Potatoes are also nightshades, but the little green berries are poisonous, so I am not going to try them and see if they are sweet or not.
A little research revealed two likely candidates: ground cherries and sunberries. Ground cherries are a close relative of tomatillos, but are eaten more like berries, They are described as being about the size of cherries, but with a papery husk like a tomatillo and a flavor that is sweet. Sunberries are small, dark blue berries somewhat resembling blueberries. The descriptions I was able to find ranked anywhere from “kind of bland raw, but delicious cooked” to “incredibly delicious and addicting.” I figured both would be worth a try and I ordered some from Seed Savers Exchange, which is a really good site for hard-to-find seeds. Unfortunately, I didn’t order them until late May, so planting in pots and transplanting after frost wasn’t really an option. No matter, I just wanted enough to try them, and I saved enough seeds to grow them next year.
Both plants started off well and needed to be thinned by the middle of July. Shortly thereafter, they started setting fruit, despite each sharing a pot with a particularly exuberant cherry tomato that got huge but produced little fruit. I did at least manage to prune the tomatoes somewhat so that my ground cherries and sunberries could get a little sun.
The final results were mixed. I have to say that both types of plants produced lots fruit for the size they got. The sunberries were rather bland. To me they tasted like a kind of bland, earthy tomato. They were low on tartness, sweetness, and flavor. I never got enough at once to try actually cooking them, but I wasn’t really looking for something that needed lots of flavor added to be good anyway. I am glad I tried them, but I won’t grow them again (anyone want the rest of my seeds?). The ground cherries, on the other hand, were an instant hit. I got Aunt Molly cultivar, which were described as having a citrus flavor. I’d say it was a pretty accurate description. When you bite in, you get a burst of sweetness and a little citrus flavor. As you chew, though, the sweetness gives way a little to something a little more savory. My friend Robert called it buttery, which I suppose is about as accurate a description as I can come up with. At any rate, it has a depth of flavor that I particularly enjoyed. I will definitely be growing ground cherries in the future. The nice thing is that supposedly, given and early start and plenty of sun, it is supposed to grow into a bush about 3’ tall and similarly wide. If the density of fruit on that plant is similar to my smaller bush, one bush should produce plenty for snacking.