The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for February, 2009

Ground Cherry – Cossack Pineapple

Friday, February 27th, 2009

OK, here’s another installment about my issues with plant names. Did I hear somebody say “Get a life!”?

The ground cherry Cossack Pineapple came to me through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1987 from Bill Ellis (PA EL B). It was put into the SSE by seed-saver super-hero Will Bonsall (ME BO W), who has the god-like power (in my eyes) to get seed directly out of the USDA National Plant Germplasm System. This particular Cossack Pineapple is the USDA’s PI285705, and came to them from Warsaw, Poland.

Cossack Pineapple Groundcherry

I can say for sure it is a member of the genus Physalis, which makes it a close relative of tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) and the ornamental Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi). All of these plants have calyxes that form a papery envelope around each fruit, and are members of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.

There is a lot of confusion about Physalis species. My Cossack Pineapple is either P. peruviana (aka P. edulis) or P. pruinosa (aka P. pubescens). The USDA lists this accession as P. peruviana, and calls it an annual. However, Taylor’s Gardening Encyclopedia calls P. peruviana a tender perennial, and P. pruinosa a hardy annual. In his booklet Ground Cherries, Husk Tomatoes and Tomatillos Craig Dremann has wisely avoided the annual/perennial issue, except to say that the genus includes annuals and perennials. I have been growing this plant for more than 20 years, and I don’t know. Doesn’t make much difference to me – even if it is a tender perennial, in my climate I have to treat it as an annual. Google Cossack Pineapple and you’ll find this cultivar name attributed to either species. Some of the photos and descriptions match my plants, some don’t.

Cultivation is the same as for tomatoes: start them early inside, transplant after frost danger, feed well. I usually have volunteers, but they bear a lot less fruit than the transplants. The plants are upright (2-3 feet) and spreading. The fruit ripens and forms sugars well even in cool temperatures, which is probably why it became quite popular as a commercial crop in the Ukraine and Poland. This strain has really delicious, sweet subacid fruit with none of the off-flavors often associated with ground cherries. We eat them raw out-of-hand, in salads, and they make fantastic salsa. I love the combination of Cossack Pineapple with cilantro and fresh hot peppers. The trick is to be sure they are completely ripe, which is easy to discern because the husk turns brown and the fruit falls to the ground. They also keep really well. The plants will survive a light frost, so at first frost, I pick all the fruit into a basket, hulls and all, and keep them in the pantry (65 degrees F). Most of the unripe will ripen in the basket, and if you aren’t keeping up with eating them as they ripen, they will dry very nicely. We ate the last of ours this year in early February, but if the harvest had been bigger, we would still be eating them out of the basket.

I think the name Cossack Pineapple may be one of those very generic variety names, which frequently happens with off-the-beaten track species. I do wonder if this plant’s wild origins were in the Andes (if it is P. peruviana), or in eastern Europe. Could it have been collected on a Vavilov expedition to South America, and introduced into the agriculture of the USSR in the twentieth century? I’d love to know more.

Littleton bean – one of our own Three Sisters

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Littleton pole bean, dried

Here’s yet another horticultural bean from my neck of the woods. Thankfully, I have not heard or seen it referred to as a Cranberry bean. This is one I acquired in 1985 by participating in Seed Savers Exchange growers’ network. BN-17, as it is also known, was originally put into SSE by Ernest Dana of Etna, New Hampshire.

The name refers to Littleton NH. Plant breeders extraordinaire Elwin Meader and Albert Yeager referred to it as an “old New Hampshire heirloom” in Breeding New Vegetable Varieties (1957, NH Agriculture Experiment Station). They chose it to cross with their own Flash in a quest to breed a bush horticultural bean with bright red color, not only on the pods but also on the seeds at the green shell stage. They also wanted pods that would pop open easily. At that time, horticultural beans typically went to market in the pod when the seed was mature, but not dry, and the seed color at that stage is usually off white with only a hint of the streaking and color that becomes pronounced when the bean seeds are dry. The characteristics sought from Littleton were the large seed size, earliness and prolific production. From Littleton x Flash they created Shelleasy.

Littleton bean in bloom

Littleton is not a bush bean – it won’t stand up on its own; but, it’s not a typical pole bean either – the vines only grow to about 4′ long. Beans with this kind of plant architecture are sometimes referred to as twiners or half-runners. Like full sized pole beans, half runners have fallen out of favor. They’re not suited for mechanized harvest, and most home gardeners don’t want to be bothered with the extra work of providing support. But those whose make the extra effort discover that these types of bean give higher yields in a given amount of garden space than bush varieties.

I was always intrigued by the concept of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) grown together in hills, with the beans climbing the cornstalks. I tried this several times with various pole bean varieties only to have the beans strangle and smother the corn. When I finally tried half-runners on the corn, it worked…

You may notice in the photo below, there is no corn. In the past few years we have had a severe raccoon problem, and I can’t chance growing these rare beans where they’re likely to get ripped and trampled.

The beans growing in a bed with squashBean pods at the green shell stage

Littleton growing on short poles in a bed with squash.

The same season I got Littleton through the SSE grower’s network, I also grew out another half-runner, Mohawk Horticultural, SSE BN-220. Very little information came with either Littleton or Mohawk. For Mohawk it was simply “80-105 days, Indian, 1825 ” and that the original source was ME/HO/L (ME = Maine). After growing both for several years, I have to say that they are identical as far as I can tell.

I have an educated guess and a strong gut-level feeling about Littleton’s origins. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont was Abenaki territory. West of Lake Champlain was Mohawk territory. The Abenaki engaged in trade with the Mohawks, so I think it is reasonable to assume that Abenakis were growing this bean and calling it Mohawk in some cases. The area around Littleton NH was in the heart of the territory of the Cowas Abenakis, my ancestors. I cannot prove the connection between the Cowas and this bean, but I feel it.

Unfortunately, my grandparents’ generation was pretty phobic about anything that might be perceived as indian-ness. At the time they were starting a family racial prejudice reached a real crescendo with Vermont’s eugenics program. So, there was a major erasure of culture, and I can only piece random fragments together and guess…