Ground Cherry (Physalis pruinosa) Toxicity

In a previous post on growing ground cherries and making ground cherry jam, I noted that the leaf, stem, husk, and unripe fruit of the plant were toxic.  A comment on reddit questioned the validity of that statement and another comment to that post asked (in my own words), how toxic is toxic, or what would the effects be?  I hope this post will at least point readers to some resources I found dealing with this issue.

ground cherry toxicity[Photo credit: ground cherry/husk tomato, By annethelibrarian on Flickr]

What makes it toxic?

Solanine belongs to a family of poisons called glycoalkaloids that are commonly found in the nightshade family.  Glycoalkaloids (alkaloids + sugars) are potentially toxic.  They cause a burning feeling in mouth and side of tongue and have a bitter taste.   Solanine acts as a natural defense from being eaten by herbivores.  It can be found in any part of the plant.  Solanine is the reason why one should avoid eating potato tubers that started to turn green because they have been exposed to light.  Light increases solanine production to protect the exposed tuber from being eaten.(1)

Solanine toxicity

Common effects of solanine poisoning can be stomach cramps, nausea, throwing up, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, and headaches.  More severe effects can be dilated pupils, fever, hallucination, loss of sensation, paralysis, jaundice, hypothermia, and death.(1)

So what parts of the ground cherry are toxic?

I will post some links below to some of the sources I found discussing the toxicity of the ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa).  All sources I could find were consistent on stating that the leaves, stems, calyx (paper husk around fruit) are toxic.  As far as the toxicity of the fruit, Plants for a Future states that the fruit is not toxic and does not specify ripeness of the fruit.(2)  Poisonous Plants of North Carolina as well as a number of other sources state that the unripe fruit is toxic.(3)

It has been suggested that the lowest dose of solanine to cause nausea in an adult is 25mg and a 400 mg dose of solanine to be potentially fatal for an adult.(1)  This doesn’t translate to me how much of a ground cherry plant (leaf, stem, calyx, unripe fruit, etc) it would take to make one feel the symptoms of solanine’s toxicity.  My question would be how much (mg) of solanine is found in a part (leaf) of a ground cherry?  I’m concluding from the resources I have found that one should avoid ingesting any amounts of the leaf, stem, calyx, and (for now) unripe fruit of any ground cherry species (Physalis spp.)

Please feel free to leave a comment on any experience, opinion, or sources concerning ground cherry toxicity.

Sources
(1) Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanine
(2) Plants for a Future, http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Physalis+pruinosa
(3) Poisonous Plants of North Carolina, http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/poison/Physasp.htm

11 Comments

  1. Reply
    Nathan Carlos Rupley February 22, 2012

    I have eaten a few wild ones that were really good, but mostly find black nightshades that produce more abundantly.

    I know an adult and child that ate about 20 ground cherries between the two of them, they were mostly ripe, but about a third of them were under ripe. Neither felt anything other than a little upset stomach.

    Not sure why people would want to push their luck with possible toxicity.

    I checked Native American Ethnobotany, and out of all the many references to this Physalis species being used traditionally as food, their is no mention of any tribes using any part other than the berries as food, and only two rather unclear mentions of “bud clusters” and “young green seedpods” being used. It does list numerous MEDICINAL uses for other parts of the plant, but the first one mentioned is ingesting the leaves in order to vomit out an upset stomach.

    I wouldn’t mess around with anything other than the ripe berries, unless I was able to personally find someone who was part of a long unbroken tradition of doing otherwise, and then only with the specific species that that tradition used.

  2. Reply
    Jen Biggs September 8, 2012

    I just found this site while searching for a ground cherry jam recipe. I’ve known about ground cherries for a while but just grew them this year for the first time. Every morning this summer, after my chores are done, I sit on the ground and eat the cherries for breakfast. I only eat the ones that have fallen off, but more often than not they’re green. I don’t recall having become hallucinatory or having headaches/stomachaches. Some days I have eaten upwards of 40 or 50 cherries! I would think that if it was truly a serious issue, the seed catalogs would have to mention the possibility of toxicity.

  3. Reply
    cody September 15, 2012

    i agree with jen, i grew them for the first time last year and would sit and eat countless berries that had fallen off or that were still on the vine, never once did i get sick or have any other ill effect, on the other hand i do not know why you would want to eat or use anything other than the berries

  4. Reply
    sg September 24, 2012

    I ate about 4 of the berries given to me as a present and am having bad cramps and acid indigestion.

  5. Reply
    matthew Novosel October 15, 2012

    Just wondering, as a lot of these are picked in the wild, perhaps some were identity accidentals, the Ground Cherry, Husk Tomato, tomatillo, cape cod gooseberry are all related species. The ground cherry eaten when ripe is quite good. One must be cautious as always when picking wild…inedible look a like chinese lantern is quite toxic. But I have never heard of anyone having problems with ground cherries. But like the wild you never know…I love ramps and can eat a lot of them while some people suffer gastro intestinal problems if they eat a few too many.

  6. Reply
    matthew Novosel October 15, 2012

    Also…Ripe ground cherries are yellow to golden…NOT red. If it is red it is probably chinese lantern.

  7. Reply
    AK Girl October 21, 2012

    My neighbors 4 yr old ate about 30 unripe. Her mother had set them on the counter to ripen. I think she had a little bit of an upset stomach, but not much.

  8. Reply
    Nancy Miller October 22, 2012

    We attended a wedding reception in the ballroom of the aquarium in Camden N.J. 2 days ago and one of these was in each salad still in it’s globe-shaped pod. The dressing was touching them, so we ate the red fruit at our table. Very tasty and no one got sick. Would love to know what they say in the kitchen at the aquarium!!

  9. Reply
    Cathy G. June 24, 2013

    I am growing ground cherry for the first time ever. Today I started to pinch some of the suckers off (like tomatoes, to encourage more fruit production). Within seconds my fingers started to sting, then burn, then tingle, then the sensation of going numb. I immediately ran into the house and washed my hands, but three hours later my fingers are still tingling. The leaves and stems are definitely toxic. I’ve eaten the fruit before with no effects whatsoever.

  10. Reply
    Gary e. smith August 19, 2013

    I ate green ground cherries but never felt anything at all. I have no ill effects from sticking my arms in the bushes except annoyance from that sticky stuff.

  11. Reply
    pchic September 12, 2014

    ok, i guess i will be the one to post a negative experience… altho it seems i’m in the minority to have any problems from eating these.
    ive got these coming up randomly in my garden. after some research, i learned they are P Pruinosa. decided to cautiously give them a go, knowing that many varieties of Solanum are highly toxic and many others “mildly” toxic, apparently depending on personal tolerance.

    2 years in a row now, ive developed mild ill effects within 2-4 hours of eating only 4 ripe berries. they are tasty. but i have a sensitive disposition and evidently a very low tolerance to Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitors. (side note: ive had the same reaction from too many potato chips!) More of these cherries would certainly cause a more severe- and dangerous- reaction… one does not “build up a tolerance” to ACHe inhibitors!

    google Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitors to see the effects i’m talking about. my reaction has been “mild” only because i (turns out wisely) limited my initial consumption to only 1 berry and gradually worked up to 4 over a couple days, waiting several hours between samples. Thought the bad/scary sensations last year might be a coincidence, so this year i repeated the experiment and same thing occurred, again at 4 berries. Important to note: there is a lag of 2-4 hours before effects of enzyme inhibition kick in, which could allow some folks to not make a connection… in other words, although i am very very sensitive, some of you eating larger amounts may also be pushing your luck and not realize it.

    just would like to encourage y’all to be careful snacking on these. dont overdo or the treat could turn dangerous… potentially even deadly. with my extremely low tolerance to this chemical, i have to just say no from now on :(

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