Tomatillos, Groundcherries and Chinese Lanterns

Five hundred years ago, one of the greatest food exchanges in history began 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, was 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.

This year I grew tomatillos, Physalis philadelphica, which were more important to the early cultures of Central and South America than tomatoes. 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.

The bottom tomatillo has been cut open so you can see the tomatillo inside the paper husk.

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 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.


[ii] See these sources for more information:


[iii] British Columbia Drug and Poison Information Centre.

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