Tomatillos, groundcherries and Chinese lanterns look a lot alike, but they should never be confused. Tomatillos are like tomatoes; groundcherries are sweet; and Chinese lanterns are poisonous. That’s incentive enough to make sure you can tell one from the other.
These three plants are part of one of the greatest food exchanges in history, beginning 500 years ago when various plants and animals were transported between the Americas and the rest of the world, known as the Columbian Exchange[i]. The Solanaceae plant family, including potatoes, tomatoes, chilis, peppers and eggplants, originated in the Americas and formed part of that exchange. This plant family is also known as the Nightshade family, which might give you a hint that it has some darker properties. And tomatillos, groundcherries and Chinese lanterns are three of the most interesting plants in this family.
This year I grew tomatillos, Physalis philadelphica, which were more common than tomatoes in the early cultures of Central and South America. They are very attractive plants with paper-like husks surrounding the tomato-like fruit. I have read that tomatillos make excellent salsa verde; I’m waiting to try them.
I’m also growing two other tomatillo-like plants . The Peruvian groundcherry, also called the Cape Gooseberry grows in a paper husk that falls off the plant and ripens on the ground. You’ll often find them on fancy desserts.
The Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) looks a lot like tomatillos but turns bright orange when it matures. Except for the ripened berries, Chinese lantern berries and leaves are poisonous[ii]. They contain the toxic chemical solanine.
Don’t worry too much about poisonous Physalis plants: cherry pits are also poisonous. They contain cynanide, although this is only released when the pit is ground up and eaten. Swallowed whole doesn’t seem to cause problems. You can find out about a number of everyday plants that are poisonous through these sources [iii].
[i] For more information on the Columbia exchange, see http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-twoworlds/1866 and Nunn, N. & Qian, N. (2010). The Columbian Exchange: A history of disease, food, and ideas. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24 (2), 163-188. https://web.viu.ca/davies/H131/ColumbianExchange.pdf
[ii] See these sources for more information:
[iii] British Columbia Drug and Poison Information Centre. http://www.dpic.org/faq/cherry-pit