Known elsewhere as Cape gooseberry or ground cherry, poha plants pump out lots of small, sweet fruit to delight adults as well as young gardeners.
Kids love searching for sweet treats and poha offers that opportunity. The short shrub flowers in summer and produces fruit individually wrapped in beige “paper sacks,” in early fall. In Hawaii, poha can fruit nearly year-round.
Physalis peruviana is probably native to the Andean region of South America, but it has been cultivated in England and in the Cape of Good Hope area of South Africa since the 18th century. Though its botanical name recalls its Peruvian origin, poha’s extensive cultivation and commercial importance in South Africa are probably the origin of the English name, Cape gooseberry. Some sources also claim the “cape” refers to the papery package that cloaks the berry.
As a low-growing plant producing small, sweet fruit, the ground cherry name makes sense, though poha has no botanical relation to other cherries or even gooseberries. The plant arrived on the Big Island in 1825 and grows here in cultivation and in the wild.
A close relative of the tomatillo, Physalis philadelphica, the fruits are dissimilar in taste. Tomatillos are used most often in savory dishes and salsas, while poha’s sweet flavor makes it an excellent candidate for jams, jellies and desserts. The two share some physical similarities and both are members of the Solanacea family, which includes crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes.
Like the tomatillo, poha plants grow close to the ground — usually less than 3 feet tall — and often spread to 6 feet or more from the center. Unlike the tomatillo’s narrow smooth leaves, poha’s leaves are velvety and heart-shaped. Both plants produce fruit that is protected by a papery sack referred to botanically as a “bladder” — their botanical name stems from the Greek word for bladder, physa. This protective cloak is actually the calyx of the small yellow flower they produce.
Popping ripe poha fruit out of its wrapper and into your mouth is one way to enjoy it, though many farmers and gardeners prefer to save some to make jam or jelly. Look for these delicious preserves at markets.
Poha plants can easily be grown from cuttings. Cut older, less tender branches with several buds. Dip them in rootone and place them in a damp medium such as a 50 percent perlite and vermiculite mix. Keep the soil moist, not wet, and you should get roots and shoots growing soon.
Growing your own poha from seed is not hard, either. Ferment the seeds overnight in water to remove their protective gel. Dry, then plant them in potting soil. Once they come up, you can transplant them to a sunny spot with well-drained soil.
The ability to reproduce easily puts poha on the list of plants to watch for invasiveness. Birds often eat the fruit and deposit the seeds in native forest areas. Although poha has not yet posed a threat to native plants, it should be watched and ripe fruit should be picked daily to limit the amount available to birds. Ripeness in poha is determined by the color of the cloak. When it turns beige and becomes papery, the fruit is ripe. The day it reaches full ripeness it falls to the ground.
Poha plants are very adaptable. They produce better at elevations above 1,000 feet and can survive in the wild in areas up to 4,000 feet. The plants do best in slightly acidic soil but will often volunteer in the wild in areas with distressed soil. At lower elevations the plants may produce smaller or fewer fruit.
Seedlings with adequate water and full sun will often flower and fruit in their first year, but the best crop usually comes during their second year. After the plants have fruited, it is best to prune them back by about one-third to allow for new growth to produce the next crop. Commercial growers often replace the plants every two years to get the best yields.
Though poha plants can survive with little fertility, fertilizers with high phosphorus and potassium percentages encourage flowering and fruiting.
Though several pests and diseases can attack poha, healthy plants and good horticultural practices can prevent crop damage. The solanaceous treehopper, Antianthe expansa, especially in the nymph stage, as well as root-knot nematode, Asteridiella acervata, thrips and various beetles may attack stressed plants. While diseases including sooty mold and bacterial wilt are among the pathogens that can affect poha these can be prevented with good field sanitation on healthy plants.
Characterized as a superfood, the berries are high in phosphorus as well as vitamins A, B and C and contain healthful bioflavonoids as well as some protein. A detailed report on their nutritional value as well as growing information and a poha salsa recipe can be found at ctahr.hawaii.edu/sustainag/extn_pub/fruitpubs/poha.pdf. Recipes for poha jam abound on the Internet.
Several area nurseries currently carry poha plants. Stop by, see if they have fruit to taste or products made from poha and get your own plants going. Your kids or grandkids will love picking the fruit and you can enjoy using them in an assortment of recipes.
Diana Duff is an organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.