Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.
Q: We have a mystery plant that came up in an old bonsai planter after our Chinese Elm bonsai died. Can you help identify it for us? It produces dark green fruit that matured to a pumpkin-orange color and is maybe up to 1/2 inch in diameter.
Carol Edwards, Carmichael
Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: That’s a Jerusalem cherry, which has nothing to do with Jerusalem or cherries.
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Ellen Zagory, director of horticulture at the UC Davis Arboretum, helped us identify this mystery plant, a pretty ornamental with poisonous fruit.
“You don’t want to eat it; you’d probably die from the pain!” Zagory said.
Jerusalem cherry is a member of the nightshade family, related to tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Its botanical name – Solanum pseudocapsicum – refers to “fake pepper” because it looks like a pepper plant in its growth pattern and flowers. But instead of edible peppers, it produces 1/2-inch round shiny orange orbs.
Because that pretty orange fruit is poisonous, keep this plant away from children and pets (especially cats). Remember to wash your hands after handling Jerusalem cherry. (Your volunteer was likely “planted” by a bird, immune to the fruit’s toxins.)
But it is an attractive perennial. Its glossy 3-inch leaves stay evergreen in frost-free areas. The plant forms a bushy shrub, 2 to 3 feet tall and wide.
Native to Peru and Ecuador, this tropical plant can be killed by frost, but comes back from its roots. It’s often grown as a houseplant and can be forced to bloom in winter. Hence, another nickname: Christmas cherry.
Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to email@example.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:
- Sacramento: 916-875-6913; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday
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- El Dorado: 530-621-5512; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Friday
- Placer: 530-889-7388; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Thursday or leave a message and calls will be returned; website: pcmg.ucanr.org/got_questions
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- Sutter, Yuba: 530-822-7515; 9 a.m.-noon Monday-Tuesday and 1-4 p.m. Thursdays
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