I used to marvel as I walked through the aisles of natural food stores—the shelves were full of the most amazing, healthful foods from all over the world. Just read the labels, they speak to the astonishing benefits of these foods, ranging from antioxidants to vitamins to flavonoids to minerals. The labels also speak to the traditional use of these foods by people living in (usually) South America or Asia, indicating that long connection of people to plants. I wondered how we got so deprived of super foods living here in the United States. Why was all the cool stuff from away? What if I didn’t have the money to purchase these expensive super foods? Would I wither and die?
That was before I realized that we do have amazing wild foods right here in our back yards (literally). And, in some cases, we even have the same fruit that is sold as a super food for a premium price. For example, there is a company that sells “vine ripened goldenberries”, described as an “Andean Superfruit”. Aside from the fact that goldenberries do not grown on vines, I do not dispute that this fruit, more commonly referred to as ground-cherries (genus Physalis), is an amazing fruit with a suite of health benefits. But we do not need to fly to Peru to gather them or take on a second job to purchase them. Several species of ground-cherries grow right here in the US and are absolutely delicious.
Probably the most common ground-cherry in the northeast is Physalis heterophylla (clammy ground-cherry). I usually encounter this plant in old fields—the kind that are no longer intensively managed and are slowly reverting to a forest. This includes upland fields and those along river flood plains. In mid-September through early October, clammy ground-cherry produces a yellow berry (green when immature) that is hidden inside of the bladder-like sepals. The sepals, which are green and sit just underneath the yellow petals during flowering, continue to grow as the fruit develops until they enclose the fruit (a feature called accrescent sepals). The berry has a tacky feel to it (i.e., the exterior feels a little bit sticky). When consumed, you will know that you are in the presence of divinity (if you can’t tell, I really like this fruit). It is sweet, but not too sweet, and perhaps with a slight resin flavor (it is very hard to describe).
Why bother seek this plant out? Well, as the companies who market a South American species refer to it, it is a super food. It is a high source of pro-vitamin A, meaning it is rich in carotenoids. Ground-cherries are also good sources of some B-complex vitamins and some minerals (e.g., iron, phosphorous, potassium). These fruits present an abundance of flavonoids (water-soluble plant compounds), which make them a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Member of this genus contain withanolides, compounds that inhibit cancerous tumors from producing blood vessels (thereby limiting their growth). Compounds in these fruits have also been shown to have benefit in treating lung cancer by up-regulating programmed cell death, a natural feature of normal cells (called apoptosis) that cancer cells turn off so they can grow without restriction. Research also suggests that this fruit protects the liver from certain forms of toxicity and can assist with diabetes and hypertension. Further, as a wild fruit that has not been converted (through breeding) into a seedless mass of sweet pulp, ground-cherries also provide fiber that benefits colon health.
Domesticated people have lost a connection to the wild world. Said another way, they are deprived of ecological knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, when they look out into their untended landscapes, they usually see a wall of green. They are unable to discern the individual components (i.e., lives) that make up the local flora. Lacking this knowledge, they are dependent on supermarkets to not only provide them with plant foods, but tell them which plant foods they should consume. The solution to this is for them (and all of us) to rewild key aspects of our lives. This gives us the ability to be self-reliant and benefit from the wild nutrition found outside our homes. Rewilding is a path everyone can follow, regardless of where they live. It is a path of developing awareness of our surroundings and building rejuvenative relationships with the wild beings we share this world with. I encourage you to find ground-cherries and experience the way they (and many other wild plants) can help contribute to vibrant health.