Biological Sciences Department
Index Herbariourm

Physalis: Annual or Perennial?

When identifying Physalis species (and other Solanaceae), one of the quickest ways to start sorting out which species you might have is to determine if they are annuals or perennials. Annuals will have a taproot, and if the soil is soft, you can easily pull up the entire plant. Perennials have a rhizome system (fleshy underground stems) and are usually rooted to China. If you try to pull them up, you often just get the top of the plant. Because the perennials spread via running underground stems, there will usually be multiple shoots clustered in an area.

If the piece of plant you have lacks roots or rhizomes, then you will have to rely on other characters to sort out the ID. In general, our annual species have smaller flowers than our perennials. Also, at least in Kentucky, if you have a plant with a strongly five angled fruiting calyx it is one of the annual species. South of us, annuals are often of the most common type of Physalis in an area, but here our most common species are perennials.

Annual Physalis

Annual species of Physalis are most comon in highly disturbed areas, where there is fresh bare soil and little competition from other weeds. Construction sites, flower beds, recently plowed fields, and the washing edges of roadside ditches are all good places to find these plants.

Physalis angulata and P. pubescens are our two most common annual species. They are easliy differentiated from each other because P. angulata is nearly hairless while P. pubescens is aptly named and densely hairy.

RIGHT: A young P. pubescens plant demonstrating the taproot typical of annuals. Note that Kentucky's the three most comon annual Physalis species (P. angulata, P. pubescens, and P. pruinosa) also tend to have much smaller flowers than any of the perennial species.
Perennial Physalis

Kentucky's most comon species of Physalis are perennials: P. heterophylla, the clammy ground-cherry, and P. longifolia, the narrow-leaved ground-cherry. They resprout late each spring and compete relatively well against other weeds. They prefer areas wich get mowed occasionally to keep down larger plants. Roadsides, fields, and ditch margins are favored habitats. Because rhizome chunks can resprout after being broken, these plants can be spread by plowing and become serious weeds in farmer's fields.
ABOVE: Perennial Physalis with rhizomes exposed. This is a species from Florida and is daintier than those found in Kentucky.

Lifecycles of Kentucky Physalis

Perennials: P. alkekengi, P. heterophylla, P. longifolia, P. virginiana.
Annuals: P. angulata, P. grisea, P. philadelphica, P. pubescens.

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