Physalis: varieties, harvest & propagation


I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

In the article below we will introduce you to different physalis varieties and show you which berries are edible along with how to grow and harvest this exotic berry.

Physalis plant with lanterns
Growing physalis in our part of the world is becoming more and more popular [Photo: Danutra Chaichanamongkhon/]

Many of us recognise the beautiful orange lanterns of the physalis (Physalis sp.) – or Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) – most commonly seen here in Europe. They are often used as an ornamental plant to add a splash of colour to gardens in autumn, but did you know that the berries are actually edible? As long as they are fully ripe, of course.

Physalis belongs to the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, which makes it a close relative of the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). They also share similar care needs. Some of the varieties within the physalis genus are edible and some are only used as ornamental plants. Discover more about the different physalis varieties and how to care for them below.

Physalis: origin and characteristics

The physalis plant, also known as groundcherry or Inca berry, originates from the Andean regions of Bolivia and Peru in South America. It reached Europe towards the end of the 18th century and eventually made it to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in the early 19th century, where it got its nickname “Cape gooseberry” and became a dietary staple.

While in Europe it is generally cultivated as an annual plant, physalis is actually perennial and can be overwintered easily when kept in a tub indoors. The papery husk that protects the berries is what gives the plant its name “physalis”, which comes from the Greek meaning “bladder”.

Sliced yellow physalis berries
The Cape gooseberry can be processed or eaten raw [Photo: mubus7/]

Physalis plants can reach a height of anywhere between 50cm and 2 metres, depending on the variety. In our part of the world, physalis plants typically flower from June onwards and bear delicious berries from the end of August until the first frost.

They have heart-shaped, fuzzy-haired leaves and bell-shaped flowers, which form a husk over the berries during fruit formation, transforming them into the well-known “Chinese lantern”.

The berries are usually cherry-sized, strikingly yellow orange in colour and are full of little seeds. The shape of the fruit has given rise to many different names, such as groundcherry husk cherry and Andean cherry. They taste tangy-sweet and extremely fruity, like an exotic mix of pineapple (Ananas comosus), kiwi (Actinidia arguta), passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) and gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa).

Are physalis poisonous?

The bitter green plant parts of all physalis species are slightly poisonous and can lead to abdominal cramps, vomiting and other symptoms of poisoning. Although the physalis berries are edible when ripe, not all of them are enjoyable – like the Physalis alkekengi – so you should always proceed with caution. Unripe berries, however, are poisonous and should not be eaten. They contain alkaloid solanine which can lead to the same poisoning symptoms mentioned above. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions to the rule – take for example tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa), which can also be eaten when unripe.

Note: The green parts of all physalis plants are also poisonous pets such as cats and dogs if ingested. Fortunately, though, animals rarely show an interest in the plants

Physalis species and varieties

The genus Physalis is made up of many different species. In the following section we will introduce you to the best-known varieties and species.

Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)

This plant has become a real symbol of autumn with its characteristic husks that glow a deep orange to red colour like Chinese lanterns. Although the lantern flower is not very hardy, if the conditions are right, it will self-seed and reappear year after year. The berries of this plant are edible when ripe and have a tart sweetness to them with a slightly bitter taste.

Physalis alkekengi plant with bright orange husked berries
The green parts of the Chinese lantern flower are slightly poisonous, but the berries are perfectly edible when ripe [Photo: Mariola Anna S/]

Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana)

The tastiest and probably best-known physalis species is the Cape gooseberry, also commonly known as the groundcherry, goldenberry or poha berry. The berries are packed with vitamins and the vibrant colour make them a popular edible garnish with a tangy-sweet flavour. Cape gooseberries can thrive in most environments from tropical to temperate climates, making them an excellent addition to any green space.

The best Physalis peruviana varieties:

  • ‘Heitmann’: This variety, bred specifically for early ripening, can grow up to 150cm. The fruit is a little smaller than other types, but it makes up for that in the large quantity of husked berries it yields.
  • ‘Inca Plum’: These plants grow up to 150cm high with a high yield of cherry-sized berries. The deep orange berries are sweet and juicy with just the right level of acidity.
  • ‘Lady Madonna’: This juicy-sweet variety has strikingly elongated pods with large orange-yellow berries, and also grows up to about 150cm in height.
  • ‘Little Lanterns’: This physalis is perfect for growing in a pot, in a hanging basket or on the balcony. They produce an abundant yield of cherry-sized, orange fruits.
  • ‘Preciosa’: This is one of the smaller physalis varieties, only growing up to about 80cm in height. It produces lots of small golden-yellow fruits and ripens as early as mid-August.
  • ‘Schönbrunner Gold’: The sweet, tangy fruits of this variety are particularly large, and a lush dark yellow colour. The plant can grow up to 2m high.
Single Cape gooseberry on a bush
The Cape gooseberry has a deliciously sweet and sour taste [Photo: punsayaporn/]

Ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa)

As the name suggests, the sweet taste of the ground cherry species is reminiscent of a ripe pineapple. This physalis grows small and bushy, ripens much earlier than the Cape gooseberry and produces an abundant harvest of small yellow berries. Once ripe, the fruits simply fall from the bush – hence the name ground cherry.

The best ground cherry varieties:

  • ‘Geltower Selection’: Grows to about 50cm and was cultivated specifically to produce extra large fruits. The flavour of this ground cherry is extremely sweet and pineapple-like.
  • ‘Goldie’: Originates from the USA and produces large orange berries with a flavour reminiscent of pineapple and strawberry.
  • ‘Izumii’: Only reaches about 40cm in height and is the perfect size for any balcony or small space. The light yellow berries, about 1cm in size, taste remarkably sweet and fruity and ripen as early as July.

Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa)

Tomatillos, also known as jamberry or husk tomato, are less common in Europe. However, they can grow just as well in the UK as their native Central and South America. The fruits are large at about 5cm in diameter and come in purple and light yellow to greenish colours. They taste remarkably like green apples, but are more tangy than sweet, making them the ideal for jams and salsas.

We recommend cultivating at least two tomatillo plants to ensure good pollination of the flowers. The crunchy berries, which are slightly sticky on the outside, ripen from September onwards as soon as the papery husk splits open. Some varieties can, however, also be eaten unripe. The fruit can be stored well for several weeks.

The best tomatillo varieties:

  • ‘Amarylla’: Forms light yellow, firm and juicy fruits that ripen as early as August. This European variety is particularly suitable for jams and salsa.
  • ‘Mexican Husk’: Produces stunning light yellow to deep purple fruits, depending on the amount of sunlight it gets. They also make a delicious snack when unripe. The fruitsz taste remarkably like apples.
  • ‘Purple Coban’: Come from Guatemala where they are cultivated there on a large scale. The violet-brownish covered green fruits taste extremely tangy and sweet.
Harvested green tomatillos
The tomatillo is still relatively uncommon in Europe [Photo: Bryan Pollard/]

Mexican groundcherry (Physalis philadelphica)

The Mexican groundcherry, also known as husk tomato or tomatillo, originates from Mexico where it is grown as a vegetable. Whilst this species is an integral part of traditional dishes in Mexico, it is still relatively unheard of in Europe.

‘Purple de Milpa’ is one of the best-known varieties, producing deep purple, almost black fruits with an aromatic, slightly spicy flavour. It is said to be one of the best physalis philadelphica varieties and grows up to 150cm.

Would you like to try your hand at growing any of the species or varieties above? You can find detailed instructions in our article on how to grow physalis.

A physalis berry on the plant
Physalis feels most at home in sunny locations with moist soil [Photo: Armando Rodriguez B/]

Propagating physalis

Physalis can be grown from seeds or cuttings from February onwards. When using seeds, sow from mid-February to mid-March, keeping them in a bright, warm spot. Fill the sowing trays with a low-nutrient soil – such as our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost. Plant each seed individually about half a cm deep. Keeping the seeds moist and warm at 20 to 25°C will ensure germination occurs within 10 to 20 days after sowing. Once the initial seed leaves have grown and the first “true leaf” appears, prick out the seedlings and transplant them into individual pots. Grow your physalis seedlings indoors in a bright, warm place until mid-May or after the last frost. At this point they can be planted out or kept in the shelter of a greenhouse or polytunnel.

To overwinter your physalis, take cuttings once the berry crop has finished. Cut off 10cm long head cuttings with about 5 to 7 leaves. Remove all the leaves except those closest to the tip of the shoot to ensure the plant can absorb enough water. Place the cuttings into pots with nutrient-poor soil, such as our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, and keep the soil moist at around 15 to 20°C. After 3 to 4 weeks, move the cuttings to a cooler spot that it is bright. Keep them at 10 to 15°C.

Physalis sprouts on a windowsill
Physalis seedlings grow well on a bright windowsill [Photo: Iva Vagnerova/]

Read our article on physalis care to ensure that your plant thrives after potting or planting outside.

Harvesting, storing and using physalis

Physalis ripen relatively quickly. They are generally ready to harvest about 7 to 10 weeks after flowering (usually July and August) once the green husk has dried out, turning papery and light brown. You can tell when the fruit is ready to harvest as they will either fall into your hand at the slightest touch, or have fallen off the plant already.

Tip: Almost completely ripe Cape gooseberries can be brought to full ripeness after picking by placing them with fruits that produce the ripening gas ethylene, such as bananas and apples. However, this will not work for green or only half-ripe physalis berries.

Ripe Cape gooseberries in dried out husks
Once the husks are completely dry, the fruits can be harvested and eaten [Photo: sathit savettanant/]

Physalis storage

With the husk kept on the fruit to prevent mould and shrivelling, physalis fruits keep well in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks. Tomatillos, on the other hand, are more robust. They can easily be stored in dry conditions at room temperature for as long as 4 to 6 weeks. Freezing the berries is not recommended, as they tend to burst open and become mushy when thawed. Gently dried physalis can be stored for several months.

Physalis uses

Physalis can be eaten fresh when fully ripe, or made into jam, jelly or fruity salsas. They are also very tasty when dried and added as a garnish to salads or breakfast dishes. Dipped in chocolate, they make a delicious dessert.

Physalis are incredibly rich in vitamins and minerals, making them a particularly healthy snack. They are an excellent source of the vitamins C, B3 and B12 as well as provitamin A. They also provide calcium, iron, manganese and phosphorus, and are rich in polyphenols and carotenoids.

Besides the classics – tomatoes, peppers and the like – the nightshade family also includes exotic fruits such as the tamarillo. Discover more about the tree tomato and our tips on care and harvesting.