Native Plant Highlights

What’s in Bloom | Groundcherries

July 15, 2021

Groundcherries (Physalis spp.) are perennial herbs in the nightshade family. There are seven native species of ground cherry in Virginia that can be distinguished by the shapes and textures of their leaves and flowers, but they all can be identified by their drooping, bell-shaped yellow flowers and golden fruits enclosed by papery heart-shaped husks. 

They can be found in a variety of habitats and can be weedy in disturbed area such as pastures and agricultural fields. When ripe, the husks turn papery and the golden-yellow berries are similar to tomatoes in appearance, giving the plant the alternate name “husk tomato”. 

All parts of the plant are highly toxic, but the fruits of some species (including the native Physalis virginiana, Physalis longifolia, and Physalis heterophylla) are edible when fully ripe and have a sweet tropical flavor with a mild tomato-like acidity. Some non-native Physalis species such as the tomatillo and gooseberry are cultivated for their edible fruits while others, such as the Chinese lantern, are grown for their ornamental husks. 

Benefits to Biodiversity | Groundcherries are pollinated by native short-tongued bees such as plasterer bees and sweat bees, some of which have evolved to specialize in pollinating Physalis. The toxic plants are avoided by mammalian herbivores, but many species of beetle have evolved to tolerate the toxins and eat Physalis roots and leaves. The ripe fruits are eaten by bobwhite quail, ringneck pheasants, turkeys, and skunks.  

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