Virginia Ground Cherry is an native perennial forb growing 1 to 2 feet high on stems where the upper part is sparsely hairy to smooth on some varieties (there are four varieties). Stems have 4+ ridges and branch frequently, creating a bushy effect and are erect initially but when later in fruit are generally decumbent.
The leaves are narrowly lance-like, tapering at both ends, with a rounded tip and a base that is usually not symmetrical, leading to a stalk. The margins have irregular wavy teeth or may be entire. Depending on the variety, the surfaces may have coarse hair or may be mostly smooth.
The inflorescence consists of solitary stalked flowers that rise from the leaf axils.
Flowers: The flower stalk usually has hair while the calyx may have fine hair all over when young or in some varieties only sparse hair on the main 5 triangular lobes. The corolla is funnel shaped, yellow with 5 shallow lobes. Inside the corolla there is a brownish to purplish spotted area in the center. The five stamens have purple filaments with yellow anthers which form around the central ovary.
Seed: Fertile flowers form an inflated calyx slightly longer than wide, that contains a single 1/3 to 1/2 inch diameter round berry, green initially, turning orange at maturity and containing a number of seeds. The outer husk of the calyx is mostly closed at the tip and turns brown at maturity.
Invasive: The root system can create vast colonies of plants.
Habitat: Virginia Ground Cherry grows in dry areas, prairies, woods, in rich to disturbed soils. Full sun to partial sun with moderate moisture. The plants have flowers, buds forming, husks and maturing berries all at the same time. It grows from a rhizomatous root system and can spread vegetatively to form colonies.
Names: The genus Physalis is derived from the Greek word physa, meaning 'a bladder' and referring to the inflated calyx at seed time. The species virginiana means 'of Virginia'. The author name for the plant classification - "Mill." is for Philip Miller, Scottish botanist (1691-1771) who was chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote The Gardener's Dictionary. More notes on the species at bottom of the page.
Comparisons: While this species is frequently found, there are two others that are only slightly different. P. heterophylla the Clammy Ground Cherry, has more broadly ovate leaves that are densely hairy. P. longifolia, the Long-leaved Ground Cherry has lance-like leaves that are mostly hairless, as is the stem and the calyx. There are varieties of P. longifolia that closely resemble the plant shown here. The flowers have the same structure and color.
Above: 1st photo - Calyx, stem and outer corolla may have sparse fine hair. 2nd photo - The stamens have purple filaments with yellow anthers and in this developing flower, are forming around the central ovary.
Below: The flower calyx inflates at maturity into a ribbed green husk, closed at the tip. It matures to a brown color. These arise from the leaf axils.
Below: The leaves are narrowly lance-like, unsymmetrical, with irregular wavy teeth, or may be entire. Surfaces may be smooth to coarsely hairy.
Below: 1st photo - The underside of this leaf is smooth except for some fine hair on the veins. 2nd photo - The stems have 4+ ridges, branch frequently, and may be smooth to having rough hair. 3rd photo - Young seed pods.
Below: Inside the inflated husk a 1/2 inch diameter green berry develops that turns to orange at maturity.
Below: The rhizomatous root system can form dense colonies as seen here making the plant an invasive pest.
Notes: Virginia Ground Cherry was in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden at the time of Martha Crone's 1951 census but was absent by the time of the 1986 census. In Minnesota, P. virginiana is found in most counties south and west of a line joining Washington and Kittson counties. In North America it is found throughout the eastern 2/3rds of the U.S. and Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec in Canada.
The MN DNR lists three species of Physalis native and found in Minnesota: P heterophylla var heterophylla, Clammy Ground Cherry; P. pubescens var. grisea, Hairy Ground Cherry; and P. virginiana, the Virginia Ground Cherry. The first and the last are rather widespread. The University of Minnesota Herbarium also reports two other species that have been reported but without specimens ever collected. These are P. longifolia, Long-leaf Ground Cherry; and P. philadelphica, Mexican Ground-cherry. The latter is known in Iowa and Wisconsin. Varieties of P. virginiana, are not specified in Minnesota. Three other species from the Nightshade family in Minnesota are found in the Garden - Black Nightshade, Climbing Nightshade and Clammy Ground Cherry.
The Genus Physalis: An alternate name for these species is "husk-tomato" - the small fruit resembles a tomato and is said to taste like one, although strongly, and it ripens within the inflated calyx - thus a "husk". Some species are annuals and some grow from rhizomatous roots and are perennial. They are widespread. As members of the Nightshade family, they have been sought out for medicinal purposes. One of the species not reported to be in Minnesota, P. longifolia, the Long-leaved Ground Cherry, also known as the Wild Tomatillo, is of particular interest in cancer research. This article from the University of Kansas explains that. Domesticated tomatillos have long been used as foodstuff by Native American peoples. Harrington (Ref.#9) and others report that most fecal samples from archaeological sites in the southwest contain seeds of the species.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"