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Physalis minima L. 1753
pronounced: fy-SALL-iss MIN-ih-muh
(Solanaceae – the nightshade family)
common names: Native Gooseberry, Chinese Lantern
Physalis is derived from the Greek φυσαλλις (physallis), a bladder or bubble, referring to the fruit. Minima is from the Latin minimus, small, little, insignificant.
This is a pan-tropical annual herb that grows 20–50 cm high, and is often found growing in disturbed sites, on river banks, roadsides, farms and fields from the tropical north to Gosford in NSW, with two isolated pockets in Western Australia. It is very common through the Kimberleys, including the Ord River Irrigation Area, and on Koolan Island. In the Kimberleys it is a favourite food of feral pigs. It is also widespread across tropical America, Asia and Africa. It is found growing in the sub-Himalayas up to altitudes of 1650 m, and is also reported to be growing in Afghanistan and Baluchistan. It may have been introduced to northern Australia by Moluccan traders, prior to European settlement, or it could possible be native.
It is a smooth branching herb with ovate leaves. The leaves are soft and smooth, with either entire or jagged margins, and are 2.5–12 cm long. The bell-shaped flowers are cream to yellowish, cup-shaped, 5–10 mm in diameter and borne singly on the forks of the leaves, on stalks 1.5–2.5 cm long.
The most distinctive feature is the 10–ribbed fruiting calyx that enlarges to cover the fruit and hangs downwards like a lantern. The edible yellowish fruit, sometimes with purple blotches, contains many small seeds. The papery cover turns straw brown, and the fruit falls to the ground when it is fully ripe. Aborigines ate the berries, which taste rather like cherry tomatoes. They contain a good amount of Vitamin C. In Asia, the plants are reported to have tonic, diuretic and laxative properties, and to be useful in inflammations, enlargement of the spleen and abdominal troubles. The fruit is considered to be a tonic, diuretic and purgative in the Punjab. The Mundas tribe of the Chhota Nagpur plateau in eastern India mix the juice of the leaves with water and mustard oil and use it as a remedy for earache.
There are 4 other species of Physalis that have definitely been introduced into Australia. Often confused with the native gooseberry is the Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) brought from South Africa. It is a taller species than ours, and has furry leaves as opposed to smooth leaves. Its flowers are yellow with purple blotches. It, too, has edible berries. This South American native is a garden escapee found in rich, moist soil in wasteland and around disturbed wetlands in the south-west. Physalis philadelphica (tomatillo), from North America, is an open-branching, sparsely hairy annual with ovate, slightly toothed leaves. Its flowers have a yellow corolla and blue stamens, while the berry is green. It is cultivated for its edible fruit, and may be naturalized on wasteland in the south-west. The other two species have been occasionally recorded as garden escapees, also mostly in the south-west. Physalis pubescens comes from Asia, and is a branching perennial with greyish leaves, yellow flowers, and an egg-shaped lantern around the yellow berry. Physalis viscosa (sticky cape gooseberry), from North America, is a sprawling hairy perennial with small ovate toothed leaves, pale yellow flowers and a yellow berry.
Our plant is highly competitive with strong seed dormancy. It can emerge and grow with young cotton, rapidly swamping the cotton seedlings. Mature fruits can also contaminate and stain the cotton lint.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken by the West Point road, 2012, Picnic Bay 2015
Page last updated 20th January 2017