The humble Cape gooseberry is maligned as a weed, decried as a cattle killer and is of undetermined provenance; yet, to my mind, it is one of the most delicious fruits on the planet, and one of the easiest to grow.
My mother’s apple pie was magnificent. The filling was crisply enclosed in her grandmother’s famous pastry recipe, which traditionally used lard. My mother, not wanting to kill my father prematurely with clogged arteries, rather more safely substituted butter. In late summer she would add a magical ingredient to the stewed apple filling: draining in the enamel colander was a heap of rinsed, glistening, orange marble-sized berries. We knew them as Cape gooseberries and while my brothers squinted at their sweet acidity I loved warming them in my mouth, and having the seedy juices explode with a gentle bite. My mother knew that if she stewed them with the apple they did the same, littering the apple pieces with thousands of tiny seeds. If they were added after the apple had cooled a bit they retained their shape and their flavour intensified.
From phusallis, the Greek for ‘bladder’ (per the inflated calyx) comes the genus Physalis. I am focusing here on Physalis peruviana (Linnaeus), variously known as Cape gooseberry (South Africa and Australia), Inca berry, Aztec berry, golden berry, giant ground cherry, Peruvian groundcherry, Peruvian cherry, pok pok (Madagascar), poha (Hawaii), jam fruit or ras bhari (India), aguaymanto (Peru), uvilla (Ecuador), uchuva (Colombia), harankash or is-sitt il-mistahiya (Egypt), gu niao or mao suan jiang (in Chinese pinyin), altin çilek (Turkey), or sometimes simply Physalis (UK).
Although it has been cultivated in some areas for more than 200 years and local genotypes are common, varieties of selected strains for commercial use are not widely available. References to named cultivars include ‘Golden Nugget’, ‘New Sugar Giant’, ‘Giallo Grosso’ (large fruit), ‘Giant Poha Berry’ (fruit approximately 30mm in diameter), ‘Golden Berry Pineapple’ (a dwarf variety), ‘Little Lanterns’, ‘Golden Berry’ (fruit up to 60mm in diameter), ‘Long Aston’, ‘Dixon’, ‘Garrison’s Pineapple Flavor’, ‘New Zealand’, ‘Peace’ and ‘Yellow Improved’; however, their respective availability appears to be very localised, and these cultivar names may not be formally recognised, or are synonyms.
The Cape gooseberry is yet another delicious and nutritious member of the abundant Solanaceae family and like other members the unripe fruit, leaves and flowers are poisonous. The Solanaceae consists of approximately 98 genera and some 2,700 species, and there are about 85 species of Physalis. Several references cite Physalis edulis (Sims) as a synonym for Physalis peruviana; yet this use is infrequent in the literature. Solanaceae, or the Nightshades, are known for having a diverse range of alkaloids – nitrogenous organic substances, that provoke a range of intense physiological actions on animals, even at low doses.
The tropanes are the best known of the Nightshade family alkaloids and are desirable, toxic, or both to humans. Nightshades also variously contain a variety of alkaloids that can be more or less active or poisonous, such as nicotine, scopolamine, atropine and hyoscyamine. There is some indication the Cape gooseberry has amongst its constituents polyphenols (which provide coloration, and suppress or release growth hormones, in addition to other roles) and carotenoids (which have anti-oxidant qualities).
As noted, only ripe fruits should be eaten, as there could be toxic, cyanogenic glycosides in the unripe fruit. The Cape gooseberry may also be considered a threat to foraging animals as its leaves and stems are suspected of having caused the erosion of intestinal membranes (Diptheresis, or pseudomembranous inflammation) in cattle.
The most commonly used local name Cape gooseberry is a double misnomer. Physalis peruviana is indigenous to South America, not South Africa, but has been cultivated in England since 1774 and in South Africa in the Cape of Good Hope region since before 1807. Soon after its adoption in the Cape region seeds were brought to Australia, where it was one of the few fresh fruits of the early settlers in New South Wales, and perhaps helped address the issue of scurvy (at least), as it is high in vitamins A (3,000 I.U. of carotene per 100 g), C, B (thiamine, niacin, and vitamin B12) and P (bioflavonoids), protein, and iron. Cape gooseberry jams and preserves are self-jelling as the juice of the fruit contains so much pectin and pectinase. The protein and phosphorus contents are high for a fruit, but calcium levels are low.
Just as it not of South African origin, it is also not a gooseberry. The gooseberry Ribes uva-crispa (syn. Ribes grossularia) is native to Europe, northeastern Africa, and west, south and southeast Asia; however, Physalis peruviana is correctly identified as a berry.
In undertaking research for this article I came across a fascinating book published by the National Research Council – Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation (1989). The National Academies Press, which holds this e-book, is a storehouse of papers, books, conference proceedings and articles on agriculturally-related topics and many can be uploaded free of charge. Lost Crops of the Incas refers to the Cape gooseberry as ‘goldenberry’, and confirms the Incas knew of it, but that its specific origin is obscure. It notes plants give their maximum yield the first season and will produce for two or three years but the fruits get smaller after the first.
This text also warns Cape gooseberry has the potential to become a weed when introduced to new and climatically accommodating locations. It is listed in the Geographical Atlas of World Weeds as a “common weed in Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya, Rhodesia and a weed of unknown importance in Australia, Fiji, India, New Zealand, Peru, West Polynesia and the United States”. The Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants site notes Physalis peruviana is now naturalised in many localities in the higher rainfall parts of Australia, particularly in northern Australia, where it grows as a weed of agricultural land, in newly felled and burnt rainforest on basaltic soils, and beside roads. The Weeds Australia site goes further to state it is regarded as an environmental weed in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, and that it is becoming naturalised in Tasmania (although the frosts here do kill the soft leaves and branches very readily).
Nonetheless, I highly value my Cape gooseberries as they produce fruit well into autumn and demand very little of my attention. I am careful to water them generously, but I am sparing with the fertiliser (as too much generates lush foliage and few fruit). One day, with the right oven, patience, some locally grown heirloom cooking apples and a full colander of my golden berries I shall attempt to replicate the famous family recipe.