Most people, including most gardeners, are content to use the common names of plants whenever they have occasion to refer to them in conversation or when making enquiries at a garden centre. And most retailers are equally happy to use these common names, for it eases communication when both parties speak the same language and use the same vocabulary.
However, in an interesting reversal of usual practice, I recently asked the Tesco website if that company had ‘Chinese gooseberries’ in stock. “We did not find any products to match ‘Chinese gooseberries’” was the response. So let’s try another common name by which these fruits are known - ‘Cape gooseberries.’ Once again, back came the reply, “We did not find any products to match ‘Cape gooseberries’.” O.K., let’s try using the proper botanical name, ‘Physalis.’ And in nano-seconds I was informed that the company was indeed offering pre-packed Physalis in 100G packs … and I think that should be recorded as 100 g, but I am known for my pedantry … at £1.00 per pack, equivalent to £10.00 per kilo, a relatively rare example of the pukka botanical name being preferred to either of the common names. But it’s just as well that I knew that the fruit usually called the Chinese gooseberry or the Cape gooseberry is properly termed Physalis.
Physalis … the name comes from the Greek word ‘physa’, which means ‘bladder’ and refers to the distinctive case in which the seed is held. The plant is recorded as having been introduced into the United Kingdom as far back as the thirteenth century, although that seems to have been a false dawn, for the same plant is noted as having been reintroduced in 1548. This was Physalis alkekengi, ‘al kekengi’ being simply the Arabic name for the plant, suggesting that its reimportation was from the Middle East although it is native to much of Europe, Asia and Japan. Physalis alkekengi was grown for both its seed and its flowers and is the variant of Physalis that we usually term the Chinese lantern nowadays, that common name being explained by the shape of the calyx - the seed case - which is valued by flower arrangers, who sometimes leave the bright orange, lantern-like flowers in water for six weeks to soak off the bright orange skin and leave the vivid red berry encased in a papery shell, doubling its similarity to a Chinese lantern. Opinion is divided on the taste of Physalis alkekengi, some people professing to enjoy the small seed while others find them very sour and fairly unpleasant.
The variant of Physalis that we find in supermarkets today is Physalis edulis … the edible Physalis … which originated in South America and was first grown commercially in South Africa, accounting for the common name ‘Cape gooseberry’. This was a useful winter fruit in times before modern agricultural methods and modern storage techniques made a nonsense of the natural seasons, for it had a long shelf-life. As with the taste of the seed of Physalis alkekengi, opinion is divided on the possibility of growing it in Scotland. It is, at best, half-hardy and will only thrive outdoors in a very sheltered environment; and growing it in a domestic greenhouse is not to be recommended, for the plant produces foliage in abundance and needs space. Given that the French tried to grow it on a commercial scale in Victorian times and abandoned the idea after a few years, I suggest that local gardeners curb any ambition they may harbour about growing this fruit for the kitchen … recipes for such delicacies as Cape gooseberry fool and Cape gooseberry jam can be found on the internet … and buy the fruits from a supermarket before unwrapping them and eating them as they are or dipping them in melted chocolate and serving them after dinner with coffee.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society