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Chinese Lantern Plants

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Picture of Chinese lantern seed pod. Chinese lanterns are plants in the Nightshade family.

Picture of Chinese lantern seed pod.

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of Chinese Lantern Plants:

Taxonomy classifies Chinese lantern plants as Physalis alkekengi (sometimes listed as P. franchetii). Other members of the Physalis genus include tomatillo (P. philadelphica) and Cape gooseberry (P. peruviana). Physalis is in the Nightshade family, as is, for example, the Solanum genus; an example of the latter is bittersweet nightshade. Other common names for P. alkekengi include "winter cherry" and "ground cherry."

Plant Type:

Chinese lantern plants are herbaceous perennials.

Characteristics of Chinese Lantern Plants:

Chinese lantern plants bear white flowers, but the flowers are insignificant and not the reason for which the plants are grown. Rather, the plants are grown for the 2-inch wide papery pods or "calyxes" (calyces), that eventually envelop the flowers. Each of the pods later encases a berry with seeds. In fall, they turn bright orange! These pods are reminiscent of some traditional Chinese lanterns (the lit kind) in shape -- and even more so for their papery texture -- thus the name. Leaves are heart-shaped. Plants are low-growing, reaching a maximum of 2 feet in height (but usually shorter).

Planting Zones for Chinese Lantern Plants:

Indigenous to Eurasia, Chinese lantern plants can be grown in zones 3-9.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Chinese Lantern Plants:

Grow Chinese lanterns in full sun in cold climates; in warm climates, the plants can be grown in partial shade. Grow them in a well-drained soil. When young, plants need to be kept watered and fertilized; once established, the plants become reasonably tolerant of poor soils. They are also reasonably drought-tolerant ground covers, although flower (and, consequently, pod) production will be enhanced through irrigation and feeding. Mulch to maintain soil moisture.

Caveats in Growing Chinese Lantern Plants:

There are two reasons not to grow Chinese lantern plants:

  1. They are invasive plants, spreading via underground rhizomes.
  2. They are poisonous plants -- a concern if you have children or pets in the yard.

Uses for Chinese Lanterns:

Chinese lantern pods are used in Halloween crafts (due to their orange color) and dried flower arrangements. If you'll need to harvest only a few pods for such purposes, consider growing the plants in pots (sinking the pots into the ground is one option, if you don't wish the pot to be in view), to counteract their invasive tendency. Or if you must grow them directly in the ground in your garden, one way to prevent their spread would be to use a bamboo barrier or similar "firewall."

Care for Chinese Lantern Plants:

Chinese lanterns are subject to many plant diseases and insect pests, including false potato beetles, cucumber beetles and flea beetles. Neem oil may help against some of these pests. Cut back and properly dispose of foliage in fall if your plants have experienced any disease problem, to minimize its spread. Divide plants in spring if overcrowding occurs.

By far your biggest challenge in growing these plants will be in keeping insect pests at bay.

Harvesting Chinese Lanterns:

Though their initial color is green, the pods mature at the end of the growing season (September in zone 5) into the color that immediately calls to mind another "lantern" popular in fall: the jack-o-lantern.

When the pods have changed to their characteristic orange to reddish-orange color, it's time to harvest them. Cut the stems off at ground level to remove them. Strip the leaves off, then suspend the whole plant, upside down, from a nail or string. The best places in which to dry the harvested pods are dark, cool places with good ventilation (perhaps a garage). Drying should be complete in a few weeks' time.

If you can't grow and harvest your own Chinese lanterns but wish to purchase some for crafts or ornamentation, not to worry: They are widely sold, both by florists and by private individuals (just as the latter sometimes sell pussy willows on their front lawns).

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