Grow your own Christmas tree – Jerusalem cherry – Indoor Gardening

Margaret A. Haapoja

WHEN WE MOVED INTO OUR house 30 years ago, I had a showy little houseplant called a Jerusalem cherry. Trimmed with bright scarlet fruit, it looked like a deciduous Christmas tree. It’s one holiday plant you can easily grow from seed in a sunny windowsill with some tender loving care.

Along with potatoes and eggplants, the Jerusalem cherry belongs to the genus Solanum in the nightshade family. Only two Solanum species are commonly grown as houseplants. Solanum pseudocapsicum is the more familiar one, with larger, more attractive berries and smooth leaves. Solanum capsicastrum is called the false Jerusalem cherry and has hairy leaves and coneshaped fruits. Although they are perennials in the tropical climates to which they are native, in this country Jerusalem cherries are usually treated as annual houseplants and discarded after fruiting. The fruits of Jerusalem cherries are poisonous if eaten and should be kept out of the reach of children and pets.

Jerusalem cherries are bushy shrubs that grow up to 18 inches tall and 18 inches across. Insignificant star-shaped blossoms appear in summer on woody stems, followed by decorative orange-scarlet berries, often in time for the holiday season. Given a summer vacation outdoors and the right growing conditions, Jerusalem cherries will bloom and fruit again the next year.

Last year I succeeded in keeping my Jerusalem cherry over a second season to decorate our church entry for the holidays this year. To do it, I let the plant rest for four to five weeks after Christmas in a cool place, withholding water. In the spring, I pruned the plant back severely, cutting out about two-thirds of the previous year’s growth and summering it outside in a shady spot. When it began growing vigorously, I pinched out the growing tips to encourage a bushy shape. I repotted the plant in a slightly larger container and moved it indoors just before frost in the fall.

Start some Jerusalem cherry trees in January for next year’s Christmas gifts. If you’ve ever started tomatoes from seed, you’ll do just fine with this tomato relative. Ordinary commercial potting soil serves well but I usually mix mine with vermiculite. Press the seeds into the potting medium but don’t cover them. Place the container in a clear plastic bag under bright light until the seeds sprout. Keep the seed pans warm, as 70 degrees is the ideal temperature for germination. Be patient: Jerusalem cherries may take up to three weeks before they start growing.

When true leaves have appeared, transplant the seedlings into 2-1/4inch pots and place them in your sunniest window or under a grow light. The plants will do best if you keep your home temperature at 60 degrees at night. To provide humidity, stand the plants on trays or saucers of moist pebbles. Move plants into 6-inch containers when the weather is warm; if possible, place them outdoors for the summer and shelter them from midday sun.

Bring plants back inside before there is risk of frost. Usually by this time, they will have some flowers, some green fruit and a few berries will be ripening. Apply standard liquid fertilizer — I use balanced 20-20-20 — every month except during dormancy, and keep the soil moist. Jerusalem cherries consume a great deal of moisture, so pay close attention to watering.

The ornamental fruits last for several months if the plant is given a cool, humid environment. Be sure to harvest some seeds from a ripe berry for next year’s plants. Just cut the berry open, separate out the seeds and dry them on a paper towel.

COPYRIGHT 1995 KC Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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