Instead of birthday cake I ate pie on Saturday. After picking ground cherries for a few weeks we had more than enough for two pies, so I baked on my birthday.
Ground cherries are a familiar fruit in my family. Apparently both Mom and Dad grew up eating ground cherries from their families’ gardens. My dad said that after my aunt Melie was living with our family she came home one day saying, “Guess what I found? Ground cherry seeds!” Melie was the chief family gardener while I was in elementary and high school, with my dad resuming charge of the garden when age slowed her down. By that time ground cherries were well established in the plot at the back of the yard.
Ground cherry seeds need to be planted only once; at least that’s so in the Midwest and in Pennsylvania. In subsequent years one need only watch for seedlings to emerge in the vicinity of where plants grew the previous year; they usually appear in late spring. Within a couple months the plants grow into sizable shrubs, spreading their branches out a couple feet in every direction. Fruit matures in August, with green lantern shells turning yellow and the cherry-size fruit inside also turning from green to yellow. As fruits ripen the “lanterns” fall to the ground where they are easy to gather. Because local chipmunks steal fruits from the ground, we check the plants almost every day and take any yellowing “lanterns” that drop when tugged gently. If left in their casings ground cherries will keep many weeks, their husks drying to a tan papery covering. We pile the fruits in a basket on the kitchen counter until we’re ready to use them.
My aunt Melie was also the baker of ground cherry pies that my family enjoyed at summer’s end. I don’t recall whether she made ground cherry jam along with other canned goodies. After I was married and visiting my parents from South Dakota or Pennsylvania, Dad and Mom took Jay and me on excursions into farm country around Hazleton Iowa. Amish farm families still sell their baked and canned goods, hand-woven rugs, woodworking, other crafts and general merchandise a few days a week. My parents would buy a ground cherry pie after Melie stopped baking and I would purchase several pints of ground cherry jam as gifts to myself and others.
Our son doesn’t like the seediness of ground cherries but our daughter loves the fruit. As a young child she claimed the task of picking up ground cherries when we worked in the garden. Since that was always her chore, doing it myself on the day after delivering her to college for the first time brought “empty nest” tears to my eyes. Now she’s a wife and mother who has taken ground cherry seedlings from our garden to the gardens she started in Wisconsin and Maine. She has no garden space in Florida but has asked us to pot up a plant for their patio. I hear ground cherries grow well in pots.
Obviously ground cherries hold lots of memories for me and I can’t miss baking pies at least once every year. The amount of fruit we have determines whether I make a custard or two-crust pie, or even two of the latter. When there are too few ground cherries left for a full pie at the end of the season, I mix them with apples. To husk the fruit, Jay and I sit across from one another with newspapers spread on the table for the husks, and a large measuring cup between us to collect cherries. Saturday there were enough ground cherries to make both a custard and an all-ground cherry pie. We put the two-crust pie into the freezer for winter enjoyment and sliced into the custard pie for evening dessert without even putting a birthday candle into it.
If you would like either pie recipe, just ask. If you live in our area or can visit, we’ll happily share heirloom seeds or plants so you can start your own ground cherry traditions.