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The Genus Physalis

Physalis is a genus of 80-100 species in the Solanaceae (the nightshade or tomato family). These plants are commonly known as ground cherries, husk tomatoes, Chinese lantern plants, or tomatillos. Their most recognizable feature is the inflated, papery, sometimes colorful husk that surrounds the berry.

Physalis is almost exclusively a New World genus. The center of diversity (or area where the largest number of species occur) is Mexico. About 30 species (native and introduced) occur in the U.S. and Canada, though only a few species are found at the northern end of that range. Species diversity also drops moving from Mexico into Central and South America, and most of the species occurring in those areas are either widespread and often weedy, or cultivated. For example, the Flora of Panama lists only 9 Physalis species, none of which are endemic (D'Arcy, 1973).

Weedy species of Physalis, usually annuals (ex. P. angulata, P. minima, P. pubescens), have been introduced to warm areas worldwide. One species is native to parts of Europe and Asia (P. alkekengi, the Chinese lantern plant), but molecular studies now suggest that it is not closely related to the New World species and should have its own genus (Whitson & Manos, 2005).

Physalis includes both annual and perennial herbs. The largest rarely exceed 1.5 m (5 feet) tall. The typical Physalis has nodding, solitary, rather bell-shaped yellow flowers, often with five dark spots in the throat. These are generally bee pollinated. (While plants with other types or arrangements of flowers have been placed in Physalis, molecular data now suggests that those species don't belong there). The fruit are berries, often edible, that are surrounded by a papery calyx, thus resulting in the common name "husk tomato."

Three species of Physalis are particularly important as cultivated plants. The Chinese lantern plant, P. alkekengi, has long been cultivated in Europe and Asia both because it had medicinal uses and as an ornamental. The calyxes and berries of this species are a brilliant orange-red and fruiting branches are used in dried flower arrangements.

Physalis peruviana, the Cape gooseberry, is a South American species that is cultivated in warm areas worldwide for its sweet berries. These are often used for jam or in pies.

Physalis philadelphica (or P. ixocarpa in older literature), the tomatillo, is a Mexican species grown for its large fruit, though they are not particularly sweet. Tomatillos are used for making salsa and other savory dishes.

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© Maggie Whitson

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