Originating in the South American country of Peru, physalis (scientific name: Physalis peruviana) is one of many species of its kind and a rich source of important polyphenolic antioxidants as well as dietary nutrients. Physalis peruviana is known by many names, the most popular being giant ground cherry, Peruvian cherry or Peruvian groundcherry, Aztec cherry or Inca cherry (due to the famous Inca Empire being located in nowadays’ Peru) or simply physalis.
Part of the English-speaking world calls it either goldenberry or gooseberry; however, physalis and gooseberry are two entirely different fruits. Physalis refers to both the plant and the fruit belonging to the Physalis peruviana species. The plant occurs naturally throughout South America and has been naturalized in most hot and humid areas of the world, from New Zealand to Africa and even the United Kingdom.
What does physalis look like? The fruit is actually a berry the size of a cherry or a cherry-tomato, no bigger than 2 cm in diameter. Physalis fruit have a smooth, bright yellow-orange skin and a sort of cape of dried leaves covering them, hence the popular name cape gooseberry. But physalis and gooseberries are two entirely different fruit (see benefits of gooseberry). The paper-like outside layer is actually the remaining sepals which are preserved so as to protect the fruit from spoilage and extend its shelf-life. The flesh has a texture similar to that of tomatoes, with whom they are actually related, and a great number of tiny, edible seeds enclosed in the bright yellow-orange pulp.
What does physalis taste like? Physalis fruit have a definite sweet taste when ripe, but maintain a slightly acidic aftertaste that makes them a great salad-fruit. Their taste is similar to that of sweet-sour strawberries, although not as acidic. Despite their popularity and availability (from wild trees and commercial crops), physalis remain an exotic addition and are mostly used for decorating expensive cakes and other baked goods. Their papery sheath reminiscent of Chinese lanterns is what makes the fruit so popular.
What is physalis good for?
Aside from being used in pies, jams, cakes and baked goods (as an ingredient or as decoration), fruits and vegetables salads, the fruit boast several great health benefits. Find out what are the 5 most notable health benefits and nutrition facts of physalis:
1) The plant infusion is efficient against the flu and laryngitis. Physalis roots and leaves are reputed to improve respiratory diseases such as laryngitis and even help with fly symptoms. Traditional South American medical practices recommend chopping physalis roots and leaves finely and infusing them just as you would do to any other tea herb.
2) Good source of vitamin A and carotenoids. According to the USDA, 100 g physalis fruit contains 36 mcg of vitamin A which translates into about 14% of the RDA. Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyes and good vision, as well as for skin health. Moreover, it possesses remarkable antioxidant properties and, as a result, efficiently neutralizes free radical damage that can lead to degenerative diseases such as macular degeneration (loss of central vision) or rheumatoid arthritis.
3) Rich in antioxidants. In addition to the potent antioxidant-vitamins C and A, physalis is a rich source of polyphenols and beta-carotene. Its antioxidant value has sparked great interest and research is being conducted to see how the fruit can impact the treatment of a variety of medical conditions such as cancer, malaria, hepatitis, rheumatism, asthma and dermatitis.
4) Contains generous amounts of vitamin C. Physalis contains 11 mg of vitamin C per 100 g of fruit. Vitamin C is an excellent natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant which stimulates collagen production and accelerates wound healing, maintains skin young and elastic and helps clean blood vessels of excess cholesterol, contributing to lowering blood pressure levels.
5) Good source of B vitamins and other nutrients. Last but not least, physalis fruit are a good source of B vitamins and contain small amounts of calcium, iron and phosphorus as well. Despite the fact that the B vitamin content of the species can merely complement an already balanced diet, it does offer a precious contribution to our dietary needs, helping us convert food into fuel and allowing us to remain alert and energized.
Overall, Physalis peruviana is a wonderful fruit, rich in antioxidants and essential nutrients with great health benefits. Plus, it’s delicious. But while it may tempt you to turn it into a luscious jam, remember that heat destroys nutrients so it might be best to enjoy it in a fresh, sweet and sour fruit salad.