October 22, 2017

Golden Treasure of the Incas

Husk cherry

Janine Pineo Photo | Husk cherry

• By Janine Pineo •

The Incas “lost” it.

I found it.

I planted it, picked it and ate it.

And then I nearly lost it when I couldn’t find the seeds for it.

That’s what happens when a plant has an identity crisis.

I was looking for husk cherry, this luscious little berrylike fruit that looks like a green Chinese lantern until it matures, when it turns a sandy hue. The real treasure is inside the husk, where a golden berry awaits.

That’s one of its other names, goldenberry.

It also could be and has been called cape gooseberry, Peruvian ground cherry, poha, poha berry, husk tomato, tomatillo and strawberry tomato, to name a few.

Those, of course, are the common names. Physalis peruviana L. is the official moniker, but it also could be listed with its very near relatives P. heterophylla, P. ixocarpa, P. pruinosa, P. pubescens or P. viscosa.

Confused? We are not alone. The Web site for the California Rare Fruit Growers tries to give it some sort of perspective: “There is considerable confusion in the literature concerning the various species. Hybrids between them are also known.”

Let’s just not go there.

How about that Incan thing, instead?

While I couldn’t find much in my books about husk cherry, I did turn up a slew of information on the Internet. One of the more interesting discoveries was from National Academy Press, which had a lengthy section from “Lost Crops of the Incas” on goldenberry-cape gooseberry.

The origins of husk cherry are uncertain, although everything points to somewhere in South America. The Incas, it seems, cultivated the fruit as part of their main diet, but whether that was from wild stands or planned ones is unclear.

The first mention of P. peruviana was in 1753, when it was described by Carolus Linnaeus, the Swede who developed binomial nomenclature, the system of naming plants. P. peruviana was under cultivation in England in 1774, and by 1807, settlers on the Cape of Good Hope were growing it. It was there that it acquired one of its many names, cape gooseberry.

On went the seeds to Australia and, by 1825, Hawaii. Some way, somehow, husk cherry made it to the Bahamas, the West Indies, the South Sea Islands, the Philippines and along the roadsides in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains.

Today, P. peruviana grows wild across the Andes, up to 10,000 feet above sea level in some areas. And in all those places with tropical climates, the plant is naturalized. It has spread across Australia, parts of Africa and all of Hawaii’s islands.

Despite its persistence, husk cherry is rarely cultivated outside the home garden. The commercial history is spotty, even though the products (fresh fruit and jam) were well received.

But you know what may be best about this overlooked member of the nightshade family? Besides its sort-of-like-a-pineapple taste, that is?

Husk cherry is a glutton for punishment. It can withstand a light frost, unlike most of its tomato relatives. It doesn’t need a lot of water and prefers even less when the fruit is maturing. It dislikes fertile soil, which causes lower fruit production. It’s OK to shake the plant to pollinate the flowers and, when the fruit is ripe, you can shake the plant again to make the berry-filled husks drop to the ground for an easy harvest.

After you’ve gathered everything up, you can store the fruit – still in its husks – for up to three months.

That, perhaps, is a good trait since one plant can produce up to 300 berries.

Since I found a nice assortment of seed suppliers, I am looking forward to making a bit of “Inca conserve,” as one writer called his jam collection.

And maybe an Inca pie or two.

Sources for seeds
There are several seed companies that carry husk cherry. However, that name may not be the name listed for the fruit. Here are two Maine suppliers and several out-of-state ones that offer husk cherry.

Fedco Seeds, P.O. Box 520, Waterville, Maine 04903. Look under “Physalis” for husk cherry.

Pinetree Garden Seeds, Box 300, New Gloucester, Maine 04260; telephone 207-926-3400; www.superseeds.com. Here it is found under “Tomatillo” and called pineapple tomatillo.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in February 2002.

In addition to fresh eating, the husk cherry bakes pretty well. Here is our recipe for a fruit muffin.