Janet Wade outlines the virtues of the cape gooseberry.
Cape gooseberries are not the most attractive plants in my garden. They grow to an open, sprawling, 1m height, with fleshy, grey-brown stems jutting out at all angles. Their sparse, heart-shaped, furry leaves start off light grey-green, then develop a yellow-brown tinge as they age. Their bell-shaped, yellow flowers with brown centres are a step up, but the fruit is the high point.
Each fruit develops inside a lantern that starts off green and changes to a papery-textured pale brown as the fruit inside ripens to a golden orange orb, about the size of a cherry tomato. With the husks peeled back (but left attached) and the bottom of the sweet-tasting fruit dipped in chocolate, they make a treat fit for the finest gourmet table.
Cape gooseberry plants are easily grown from seed, sown in spring, after all danger of frost has passed. Although the plants are perennials, they are frost tender, so need to be treated as annuals in colder areas. The seed should be sown as early as possible to allow the three to four months needed from sowing until the fruit is ready for harvest. In warmer climates, late sowing means the plant won’t set fruit until its second season. Seed is available from specialist seed suppliers, and plants are sometimes available from garden centres. Once established they self-sow readily.
Cape gooseberries prefer a position in full sun. They will grow in a wide range of soils, but, usefully, do well in poor, drought-prone soils, too. They are less tolerant of too much moisture, which can cause fungal problems, pockmarking the leaves and rotting roots and stems. Prune the plants hard in spring and pinch out the new shoots to encourage bushy growth.
Cape gooseberries are a native of South America. They made their way to Australia (then New Zealand) via Cape Town in South Africa, hence the “cape” in their name. They are also known as ground cherries, poha and sometimes physalis, from their botanical name Physalis peruviana – a name that doesn’t do the berries or their lanterns justice, since Physalis means bladder.
The ripe berries are high in vitamins A, B and C, and contain iron, calcium and potassium. Don’t eat unripe, green berries, because they are poisonous.
Cape gooseberries also contain high levels of pectin, making them popular for jam making. An excellent setting agent, pectin’s presence also means you must be careful not to boil the jam too long or it will become too dark and thick. Two plants should provide enough berries to make a reasonable batch of jam – provided you don’t eat too many of the berries beforehand!
Cape gooseberry jam
2kg ripe cape gooseberries
1 1/3 cup water
Boil the fruit and water for around 20 minutes, then use a potato masher or blender stick to break up the pulp. Bring the mixture back to the boil and add the sugar. Continue to stir for up to 20 minutes. Drop a small amount of the mixture on to the back of a cold saucer and when this forms a skin it’s ready. Pour jam into sterilised jars and cover.
Save seed for next season
Place the ripe berries in a jar, add a small amount of water, and gently mash them.
Top up the jar with warm water, cover it with a piece of cling film, with ventilation holes poked in it, and place the jar on a warm window ledge. Leave it for a couple of days, then add more water to the jar and stir the contents vigorously. This causes the pulp to float, while the viable seed falls to the bottom of the jar. The pulp can be poured off, leaving the seed in the jar.
Remove the cape gooseberry seed, spread it on a tray covered with greaseproof paper, and place in a warm, airy place to dry.
Seed can be stored for up to a year in a light-proof paper packet inside an airtight container, placed in a cool, dry position. The same process can be used for any similar berries.