Wednesday's Wildflower: Coastal Groundcherry

Coastal Groundcherry, Physalis augustifolia
submitted by Carol Tebay, Longleaf Pine Chapter

I spent my first winter on the Intercoastal Waterway at Big Lagoon in Escambia County getting to know some of the plants in this scrub dune habitat.  I spotted one plant I couldn't identify. Then, in April, while searching the internet to identify some tracks I’d found in the sand, I came across a list of plants that beach mice depend on for food.  I’d recently spotted one of them, the Coastal Groundcherry, Physalis angustifolia (narrow-leaved).  In this harsh, coastal environment, where I tower over many mature runner oaks, Coastal Groundcherry hugs the ground. Just the right height for a tiny beach mouse.

The Groundcherry is a member of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. Photo by Carol Tebay
According to the Atlas of Florida Plants, there are ten native species of Physalis growing in Florida.   While Coastal Groundcherry seems to prefer Gulf Coast counties, at least one species of Physalis can be found in most Florida counties.

Physalis are a member of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family along with tomatoes and tomatillos.  They are most easily identified by the calyx or lantern enclosing their fruit.  Physalis means “bladder” and refers to the enclosed fruit.  The single, yellow-green flowers are turned down making them almost inconspicuous.

While some groundcherries are commercially cultivated, the fruits are only edible when ripe,
so unless you are certain, leave them for the wildlife. Photo by Carol Tebay

Coastal Groundcherry, photo by DBollenbach
The calyx is meant to protect the fruit until it ripens, but the Subflexus Straw Moth, Heliothis subflexa, has adapted to this defense system. Physalis species have become the exclusive host plant for their larva.  A newly hatched caterpillar chews into the calyx and then into the ripening fruit where it is protected from predators.  Researchers believe the moth also benefits from an antibacterial steroid in the fruit which stimulates their immune system against bacteria.

While people can eat Groundcherry fruit if fully ripe, it  may be toxic if not ripe, so use caution before consuming them. If you are interested in learning more about the edibility and cultivation of groundcherries, watch this video: Green Deane, the edible ground cherry (physalis) a wild edible that has found its way into cultivation. 


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