Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
A plant found mostly in eastern North Dakota, Virginia ground cherry becomes quite scarce south and west of the Missouri River. Elsewhere, the plant occurs from Quebec to Manitoba south to South Carolina and Arizona.
Virginia ground cherry is a rhizomatous perennial from a deeply buried stem base. Each base usually supports one to six slightly hairy stems that are forked with ascending branches. North Dakota plants are usually about 8-12 inches tall. The pale green leaves are alternate, lance-shaped, and about two to three inches long, with half inch petioles. Each stem bears about a dozen greenish-white flowers in the upper leaf axils. Flowers are about a half inch long and droop down on thin pedicels. In fruit, a flower base (calyx) inflates into a large, five-angled, bladder-like structure. Inside is a half inch diameter, juicy berry full of yellow seeds.
Look for Virginia ground cherry from early July to September in native prairie. Most plants will be found in slightly moister sites, especially in sandy soils. More plants seem to grow where grazing is light or moderate. Amerindians relished the fruits, which were eaten raw or made into sauces.
Virginia ground cherry is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) which contains about 3,000 species, widely distributed, but most numerous in tropical America. The family includes Chinese lanterns, bittersweet, pepper, petunia, potato, and tobacco, to name a few. Some members, like henbane and deadly nightshade, are poisonous. The genus Physalis (Greek for "a bladder" from the inflated calyx) contains about 100 species worldwide, but only two occur in North Dakota. The specific name virginiana means "Virginian" in botanical Latin.
Virginia ground cherry was first described for science by Philip Miller (1691-1771), famous British gardener and author of The Gardener's Dictionary (1731) which went through eight editions.