Physalis is a genus of plants that are native to warm temperate and subtropical regions throughout the world. They are herbaceous plants which are a relative of and similar to the common tomato. The genus is characterised by the small orange fruit similar in size, shape and structure to a small tomato. The plant conveniently wraps up each fruit in its own 'paper bag' (botanically, the calyx) to protect it from pests and the elements.
The fruit of Physalis peruviana is similar in texture to a firm tomato; the flavour is a unique pineapple-like blend with a mild refreshing fruity acidity, similar to strawberries. They may be eaten raw or used in salads, desserts and in jams and jellies. They go nicely with meats and other savory foods and can be dried and eaten much like figs, apricots or grapes. As a special treat try dipping the fruit in melted chocolate! Fantastic, fragrant and exotic, they also make a lovely still life in a glass bowl for the middle of any table.
The Cape Gooseberry is a useful small crop for the home garden. The fruit is expensive to purchase as it is labour intensive in commercial plantings. Very easy to grow from seed, being very similar to tomatoes, it is not cold-hardy (to minus 3°C / 26°F) though it can overwinter outdoors in mild areas or when grown in favoured positions such as the foot of a sunny wall, where some will tolerate temperatures down to about -10°C (14°F).
Sowing: Sow in spring, February to April. Sow indoors only just covering the seed. Germination usually takes place quickly and freely. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots of fairly rich soil when they are large enough to handle and plant them out after the last expected frosts. Consider giving them some protection such as a cloche until they are growing away well.
The plant is usually naturally bushy, but it can be useful to pinch out the growing tip whilst the shoots are less than 30cm tall in order to encourage side shoots. In areas where frost may be a problem, providing the plant with some protection. Individual plants are small enough to be fairly easily covered during cold snaps by placing plastic sheeting, etc. over a frame around them. Plastic row covers will also provide some frost protection for larger plantings. Potted specimens can be moved to a frost-secure area.
Cultivation: The plant likes a sunny, frost-free location, sheltered from strong winds. Very good crops are obtained on rather poor sandy ground. If the soil is too rich it encourages leaf production at the expense of fruiting. Even moderate fertiliser tends to encourage excessive vegetative growth and to depress flowering. High yields are attained with little or no fertiliser. Branching plants can attain 1 to 1.8m (3 to 6ft) in height.
The plant needs consistent watering to set a good fruit crop, but can't take "wet feet". Where drainage is a problem, the plantings should be on a gentle slope or the rows should be mounded. Irrigation can be cut back when the fruits are maturing. The plants become dormant during drought.
Stake as necessary. Very little pruning is needed unless the plant is being trained to a trellis. Pinching back of the growing shoots will induce more compact and shorter plants.
Fruit: The flowers are a bit like potato flowers but soft yellow. After the flower falls, the calyx expands, forming a straw-coloured husk much larger than the fruit enclosed, which take 70 to 80 days to mature. As the fruits ripen, they begin to drop to the ground, but will continue to mature and change from green to the golden-yellow of the mature fruit. The unripe fruit is said to be poisonous to some people. Cape gooseberries are self-pollinated but pollination is enhanced by a gentle shaking of the flowering stems or giving the plants a light spraying with water.
Harvest: The fruit is harvested when it falls to the ground, but not all fallen fruits may be in the same stage of maturity and must be held until they ripen. Properly matured fruits will keep for several months. Remember that it comes from the same botanical family (Solanaceae) as the tomato, potato, sweet peppers and chillies. Eat only ripe fruits, all vegetation is poisonous.
The plant was being grown in England in 1774 and was cultivated by early settlers at the Cape of Good Hope before 1807. Soon after its adoption in the Cape (the origin of the name 'Cape gooseberry') it was carried to Australia, where it was one of the few fresh fruits of the early settlers in New South Wales. There it has long been grown on a large scale and is abundantly naturalised. It is also grown in New Zealand where it is said that "the housewife is sometimes embarrassed by the quantity of berries in the garden"…government agencies have promoted increased culinary use!