I’m currently harvesting a bountiful crop of paper lantern-clad Cape gooseberries from my patio. The plants have handily self-sown themselves in cracks in the concrete and are thriving in the heat that emanates from it. They originate from a plant my Mum gave me several years back, which I grew in a pot. Now that the original plant is in decline, its offspring have cheerfully taken on the task of torch-bearing. Every few days I can harvest a handful or two of brittle brown lanterns and enjoy the golden berries inside as a snack on the go, or as part of a packed lunch. As a child, Cape gooseberries were high on the hit list of snacks to collect when out playing in the garden, bonus points if you could find a lacy late-season lantern that had been skeletonised with the bright orange berry still inside.
A perennial which is usually grown as an annual, Cape gooseberries can be grown wherever you can grow outdoor tomatoes. In frost-prone regions, there is no harm in trying them in a glasshouse or tunnel house. The unique flavour of these nutritious berries is a little polarising – they are a beguiling sweet-tart-tangy blend that I do find falls into the “people love them or hate them” category! As well as providing tasty fruit, the plants, with their downy green foliage and bright yellow flowers preceding the lanterns are highly ornamental and as such, the Cape gooseberry is also handy as a groundcover or border specimen.
Cape gooseberries: a short family history
Cape gooseberries (Physalis peruviana, syn. P. edulis) belong to the Solanaceae or nightshade family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, capsicums and tamarillos. Closer relatives from the genus Physalis you might be familiar with include the larger green-fruited tomatillo, P. ixocarpa, commonly used in Mexican salsas; the red-fruited Chinese lantern (P. alkekengi, a popular garden ornamental) and the more diminutive ground cherries, of which the most commonly available in New Zealand is P. pruinosa, also known as the strawberry tomato. Cape gooseberries are also known as physalis (mainly in Europe), golden berry, Peruvian ground cherry or in Hawaii as poha.
Native to South America, the Cape gooseberry spread via trade routes to India and South Africa (specifically the Cape of Good Hope), where it thrived under cultivation. It was then taken on to Australia, where the ‘Cape gooseberry’ moniker stuck – a nod to its provenance, rather than its native range. Archaeological evidence tells us that Physalis spp. have long been a food source for indigenous peoples, from the Incas of South America to the tribes of northern Mexico, the southern United States and Hawaii. P. peruviana can be found growing wild in the Andes foothills and the Peruvian and Chilean highlands. As useful cooked as they are raw as a dessert fruit, Cape gooseberries are a nutritional powerhouse, containing high levels of vitamins A and C, some B vitamins, phosphorus, iron and flavonoids, plus a much higher protein content than many other fruits.
Suitable climates and growing conditions
As mentioned before, if your climate is conducive to growing outdoor tomatoes, you should be able to grow Cape gooseberries. Utilise a glasshouse, tunnel house or conservatory if your climate is marginal, as the plants are frost-tender and will not survive temperatures below -2°C. Pot culture is possible, but you’ll probably want to stake the plants as they tend towards a straggly growth habit. In cold climates, they are best regrown each year as an annual, but in warmer locations you can actually prune the branches back and the plant will overwinter and/or regrow, fruiting for several years.
The plants have a bushy, branching growth habit, growing somewhere in the region of 0.5-1.5 m tall. The Cape gooseberry is tolerant of a range of soil types, even poor ones, as long as they are free-draining (my plants growing in cracks in the concrete being a testament to its good-doer tendencies). Warm, well-drained sandy loam types are ideal if you have a choice. Choose a sheltered, sunny site – because of its branching nature and tender foliage, the plants are somewhat susceptible to broken stems and bruising if left to the mercy of the elements.
Plants are usually raised from seed, as you would tomatoes. One single berry will yield a few dozen plants – the rate of germination is good! Sow seed inside at the end of August into trays containing seed-raising mix, cover lightly and keep moist. Prick out into 6-cell punnets or similar (maintaining a spacing of about five centimetres between plants) once the plants have their true leaves and reach about four centimetres in height. Grow on under cover until the plants reach 15-20 cm in height. Harden them off outside in a sheltered location, as you would tomatoes, for a couple of weeks before planting out once the danger of frosts has passed – for warmer regions this will be about Labour Weekend, mid-November further south. You can take cuttings from one-year-old growth, dip them in rooting hormone and grow them on successfully, but seedling-grown plants generally tend to be more vigorous.
Plants should bear fruit between two to three months after planting (fruit matures 70-80 days after flowering) and should be in steady supply until the frosts hit. The plants are self-fertile and pollination is readily assisted by wind and insects. A single healthy plant can net you several hundred fruits in a season. Pick when the husks turn from green to yellowish-brown – ripe fruit will come off easily when you brush it with your hand, very ripe fruit will fall from the bush. The plants can last two to four years in the ground in warmer areas. The fruit stores well in a bowl at room temperature for several weeks (some say up to four months in a cool, dry place), just make sure the husks are properly dry first, as they can develop mould if not stored in a ventilated environment.
Culture and care
Cape gooseberries are very easy care – my plants growing through the concrete receive no fertiliser or irrigation other than rain and the odd splash of water from the sink after I’ve done the dishes. I’m guessing the ‘soil’ they are in is mainly gravel, perhaps towards the end of the season I will give them a splash of liquid seaweed fertiliser. Too much fertiliser will result in vegetative overgrowth at the expense of fruit production. I recently went away on holiday for ten days in the middle of summer, leaving the plants completely unattended, and was rewarded with a large bowl of ripe fruit on my return!
Very little to no pruning is required – if you want to shape your bushes to make them more compact, you can shorten the growing shoots. If you live in an area warm enough to overwinter plants, plan to prune back older or dead-looking growth in the spring to encourage fresh new shoots to come away. Use stakes and/or ties if growth becomes overly straggly or floppy.
Pests, diseases and what to do about them
Again, Cape gooseberries are very easy care, especially when grown in the right situation. In wetter soils, you may encounter root rots and damp conditions may lead to mildew. Insect pests that may affect the plants include aphids, whitefly and the tomato potato psyllid. The feeding of the latter may result in some sooty mould on the fruit husks.
Varieties: My top picks
While there are a couple of named cultivars available overseas, you will most likely encounter plants sold simply as Cape gooseberries, or golden berries in New Zealand. Kings Seeds sells ground cherry, P. pruinosa seed – the fruit from this species is said to be sweeter and more fragrant than the Cape gooseberry and the plants only grow to about 30 cm in height.
What to do with your crop
I’ve only ever eaten Cape gooseberries as a dessert fruit, out of hand, but in researching this article I’ve come across a multitude of ways to cook with them, so will have to turn over a new leaf. Back in their heyday on the Cape of Good Hope, so plentiful was production that the fruit was canned and exported. Physalis, as they are known in Europe, have long been in demand with the pastry chefs of Paris for decorating tarts and for creating petits fours – the latter having the husk peeled back and the exposed berry dipped in either fondant, caramel or chocolate.
Apart from decorative dessert purposes, the raw fruit can be added to salads. Cooked, they can be incorporated into sauces to serve alongside meat and seafood, or stewed, where they are said to blend particularly well with apples and ginger and make a mean fruit pie. I have an apricot tart recipe that suggests you can substitute Cape gooseberries, worth a whirl before the season is out. Although I haven’t tried it, they are also said to dehydrate well, so I’ll have to add this to my before-winter ‘to do’ list. I’m guessing that given the fruit’s almost waxy skin, the berries are best halved prior to drying (for reference, a 100 g bag of commercially-dried organic ‘Inca berries’ will set you back $8.30).
Due to the fruit’s favourable pectin content, it apparently makes excellent jam. Here is an authentic recipe for Cape gooseberry jam from the Cape itself – credited to Hildagonda Duckitt and taken from her 1902 book ‘Hilda’s Diary of a Cape Housekeeper’
The lady herself suggests you collect the ripe berries every day over the course of a week, which should yield sufficient for a batch of jam (if you have a similar number of plants to a Cape housekeeper of course!).
“If you have, as suggested, collected the ripe gooseberries (the pods turn yellow when ripe), they may even be kept for 10 days till you have 3-4 lb (1.5-2 kg) for a cooking. Shell them, and give (each) one a prick with a steel pin. Wash if dusty, then put the fruit in an enamelled or copper saucepan rubbed with olive oil, adding just enough water to moisten the gooseberries, and set it to boil pretty briskly for seven to ten minutes, then add the sugar (equal to weight of fruit); let it boil for another 10 or 15 minutes. Test if it is good by dishing a little in a saucer and letting it cool; if the syrup has a crinkly or creamy surface it is right and the syrup must be oily and thick. This jam will keep very well, and is one of our best Cape jams”
Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.
The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/
Disclaimer: the information supplied above is of a general nature and provided as reference material only. In regards to pest and disease control, please consult your agrichemical consultant for suitable products, application rates and further region-specific information.
Cape gooseberry fruit in dish: Steve Buissinne via pixabay.com
Cape gooseberry lanterns: Alexas_Fotos via pixabay.com
Cape gooseberry flower and foliage: Michaela Wenzler via pixabay.com