Sandy’s Garden ... Physalis

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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Casually browsing among the fruit and vegetable shelves in a local supermarket some time ago, I noticed that there was a modest quantity of physalis.

And, before we take a look at this fruit, I have always pronounced the word ‘fizz-ah-liss’, treating the first syllable as I would in words like ‘physician’; while Emma Saying … do I believe that name as the moving spirit behind a website on YouTube dedicated to the correct pronunciation of words? … says it is ‘fiss-ah-liss’. But the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) website tells me … and here I quote the terms exactly … that the pronunciation is fʌɪsəlɪs or fʌɪˈseɪlɪs, thoughtfully letting me hear these exotic combinations of sounds, which prove to be ‘fie-sal-iss’ with the first syllable accented or ‘fie-sale-iss’, with the accent on the second syllable. So which is it to be? Well, the OED pronunciation is the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England (sometimes called Received Pronunciation or RP), while the YouTube version has an American accent. I shall let you decide which you prefer, for I am wrong on both counts!

Whatever, the same OED website assures me the physalis is, “A plant of a genus that includes the Cape gooseberry and Chinese lantern, which has an inflated lantern-like calyx. The origin of the name is Modern Latin, from Greek phusallis bladder (because of the inflated calyx).” And, when I turn to my well-thumbed copy of the first impression of Dr. D. G. Hessayon’s excellent book The Fruit Expert, published by PBI in 1990, I read that the Cape gooseberry … a common name for physalis … “is rare in the shops as well as in the gardens. You might occasionally find it in a supermarket which offers a wide range of exotic foods, or you might be offered it coated with sugar as a dessert at an illustrious banquet if you move in such circles.” So it’s an up-market fruit.

Physalis is a genus of flowering plants which grow in warm temperate and subtropical regions of the world so, although you will find the seed available in the United Kingdom from specialist seed merchants, it’s a bit of a waste of time trying to get it to grow in a garden in central Scotland. Although the common names of the physalis fruit are the Cape gooseberry and the Chinese lantern, physalis is not related to our gooseberry and the latter name is on account of the papery, lantern-like husk which surrounds the berry and not because of the country of origin of the species we call ‘Chinese’. The plants look rather like tomato plants … they are actually members of the same extended plant family … with stiffer, more upright stems; they grow to a height of anything between 18 inches and 10 feet in height – say, 0.4m to 3m in the new currency; and, like tomatoes, they do well in pots. Unfortunately for the growers, physalis have a further resemblance to tomatoes in their susceptibility to many diseases and pests; and they attract aphids, whitefly and spider mite.

Some members of the physalis family … most notably Physalis peruviana … are cultivated for their edible fruit, which is about the size of a cherry, is orange and is protected by a papery husk. Originally from Peru … had you guessed? … Physalis peruviana is grown commercially in many warm countries for this fruit which, removed from its protective husk, can be eaten raw and used in salads; can be to desserts or used as flavouring; can be dried and used like raisins; and, since these fruit contain pectin … a natural ingredient of berries, apples and other fruit which causes jams and jellies to thicken when heated with sugar … they can be used to make jam or a pie filling. In Chinese medicine, some physalis species are used to treat abscesses, coughs, fevers, and sore throats: but Physalis peruviana, which I found in the supermarket, are eaten to be enjoyed and make no claim to have any homeopathic properties.