Growing Cape Gooseberries – Physalis peruviana

Cape gooseberry (aunt molly's ground cherry) grown in Vancouver, BC

You may be wondering what a cape gooseberry is. I’m fairly certain you’ve seen one, even if you didn’t realize what it was. Cape gooseberry, aka Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry, aka Aztec berry, Golden berry, Inca berry or Poha berry fruit are small (in my experience less than an inch in diameter) round fruits that grow in a ‘husk’ similar to tomatillos. As the fruit mature, they change from green to yellow/orange, and the husk changes from green to brown and papery. At this point the fruit start to drop from the plant and are ready to eat. The fruit stays fresh for quite a while so long as it remains in the husk.

Cape gooseberries are related to tomatoes and potatoes as a member of the nightshade family. The flowers are very similar to those of tomatillos, and the bees seem to love them. The ripe berries are safe to eat, though as I understand it, the leaves, stalks and unripe fruit can make you sick. In my experience the plants grow to about 18 inches in height and branch to around 24 inches in diameter. One plant produces are surprising amount of fruit.

As far as care is concerned, I’ve found them very easy to grow, however there are a few things to note. First, I’ve never seen cape gooseberry seedlings for sale, so I’ve always grown them from seed. They start to sprout as soon as the soil starts to really warm up. They’ll also reseed themselves in subsequent years if you let the fruit drop. While I’ve experienced good fruiting from such self-seeded plants, I’m going to use pure seeds this year as I don’t know how crossing might affect them (I grow both cape gooseberries and tomatillos in my garden). These plants like heat so I plant them in the garden in full sun. The most success I’ve had was actually at our previous place in pots on a balcony. Amount of sunlight wasn’t that much different, but in that location the plants benefited from reflected heat off the building. Again, this is just an hypothesis. The only pests I’ve experienced were aphids which swarmed the plants two summers ago. That said, I had no issues with aphids this past year. I have no idea what the difference was.

Finally, watering. Cape gooseberries will let you know when they need water as their leaves begin to droop. I’ve tried to keep them supplied so that it doesn’t get to this point, but anytime it has they’ve recovered quickly. Toward the end of the year I’ve noticed that too much water will see the fruit split their skins. In this over-watered state they also lack the sweetness that you’re looking for… so in my opinion it’s better to under-water than over.

Don’t overthink these berries. They’re easy to grow and delicious so give them a shot. I’ve had luck with seeds from all over. I can’t speak to the different variants of cape gooseberry, but I’ve purchased seeds from Westcoast seeds and eBay with success.

Surprising Tomatillo Production on a Vancouver Roof

Tomatillo fruit grown in a rooftop planter

Salsa verde. That’s why I tried tomatillos for the first time about 5 years ago. Little did I know how easy they would be to grow in Vancouver, and how much fruit they would produce.

For those not aware, salsa verde is, as it’s name would suggest, the base for the green salsa you often see at Mexican restaurants. The fruit itself is related to tomatoes, though smaller, and surrounded in a papery husk like the orange chinese lantern plants you see for sale around Halloween. In fact, the two are related.

Tomatillos are firm, with a texture that reminds me of watermelon (vs tomatoes), with seeds much smaller than those found in a tomato. I’ve grown both all-green varieties, as well as some that start green and color up to purple as they mature. Flavor-wise I find them to be tart and not very appealing raw.

The plants themselves are fast growing and tall. As such they require staking, or a tomato cage to deal with winds, especially on a rooftop. To be honest, the staking & cage is probably a smart move regardless as the abundance of fruit can lead to branches breaking. I’ve found them to be reliably upright, with the exception of the occasional long branch that makes a horizontal run. Again, in my experience this has been driven by fruit load more than natural growth.

Tomatillos are quite thirsty. This may reflect the poor quality and quick-draining ‘soil’ we have, but regardless in the peak of the summer we watered regularly and deeply. The roots seem to anchor the plants well and I don’t recall any having been uprooted before their time. The stems are not woody, but they are robust. One word of caution is to ensure that whatever method is used to stake the plants does allows for adjustment as the stem and branches grow. Flowers are small and yellow with black patterns and the bees seem to love them. Husk develop first with the fruit trailing and eventually filling the available space. Ripe fruit are easy to identify as they fill the husk to the point of tearing.

Picking is straightforward, though the fruit inside the husk is sticky and will need to be washed before eating. If the husk hasn’t torn, the fruit can be kept for some time before using them. Personally, I harvest in batches and either blend with peppers etc for salsa, or I clean, chop and freeze for use in winter chili.

Each fall I take the plants, remove any remaining underdeveloped fruit and deposit them in the compost bin, then chop the plants and dig them into the soil. By spring they’re gone. will self seed the following spring to the point that I’m contemplating not purchasing seeds or starts this year, and just transplanting the eventual seedlings into orderly rows.