Chinese Lantern Plant Profile

Three Chinese lantern pods against black background.

John Grant / Getty Images

Chinese lantern plants are hardy perennials that provide colorful fall interest and can be grown in the ground or in containers. Their signature lanterns are seed pods that start out green and mature to a bright pumpkin-orange at the end of the growing season in early fall. Chinese lantern is not difficult to grow and are best planted in the spring after the danger of frost has passed.

Before planting Chinese lantern in a garden bed, be keenly aware that it can grow very aggressively and spread quickly via underground rhizomes and by reseeding via its pods. For this reason, it is considered to be an invasive plant. Be careful where you plant it because it can overrun your garden beds and even sprout into turf grass. Chinese lantern is probably best suited to grow in containers to keep it from spreading to other areas of your property. Eradicating Chinese lantern is not an easy task.

Botanical Name Physalis alkekengi (sometimes listed as Physalis franchetii)
Common Name Chinese lantern plant, winter cherry, ground cherry
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 2 feet tall and wide
Sun Exposure Full to part sun
Soil Type Average, medium moisture, well-draining
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Midsummer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 3 to 9
Native Areas Europe, Northern Asia
Physalis plants, or cape gooseberries
Joshua McCullough / Getty Images
Chinese lantern plants hanging with wind chimes
Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty Images

How to Grow Chinese Lantern Plants

Chinese lantern plants have heart-shaped leaves and bear tiny white flowers. The flowers produce small round berries that are poisonous when unripe and edible (but not tasty) when mature. The 2-inch-wide papery pod, called a calyx, serves as a protective cover over the flower and fruit.

When the plants mature, the majority of its care is keeping insect pests at bay. It's also important to decide ahead of time whether you wish to grow these plants directly in the ground (without a barrier or container) and take your chances with their invasive nature. Without a barrier, you'll likely have to spend time removing unwanted Chinese lanterns that pop up via the underground root system. 

Light

Chinese lantern plants grow best in full sun but tolerates part sun conditions. But in warm climates, the plants can be grown in partial shade.

Soil

Chinese lanterns prefer average, well-draining soil. Once mature, the plants can tolerate poor soils.

Water

When young, Chinese lanterns require regular watering to keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy. Once mature, they are somewhat tolerant of drought, though flower and pod production are better with a consistent level of soil moisture.

Temperature and Humidity

This plant can tolerate cooler temperatures, but frost will cause it to die back for the winter. It doesn't have any humidity requirements. The seeds will germinate when temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fertilizer

Fertilize in the spring and summer with an all-purpose fertilizer. Compost also works well for enriching the soil.

Toxicity of Chinese Lantern Plants

Both the unripe berries and leaves of Chinese lantern plants are poisonous to humans and animals. The symptoms of toxicity are similar in both humans and animals. They include severe stomach pain, diarrhea, bloat, a slowed heart rate, coma, and even death. The severity of the symptoms largely depends on a person's size and how much of the plant was consumed. When mature, the berries are edible and have traditional medicinal uses, though most people find them to be bitter.

Growing From Seeds

Starting Chinese lantern plants from seeds is a good way to grow them as an annual each year, especially in containers. You can simply remove and dispose of the container plant at the end of the growing season and start with fresh seeds the following year. This way, you don't have to worry about the plant aggressively spreading in your garden. You can sow your seeds outdoors in the late spring. Or you can start the seeds indoors and transplant the seedlings outside after all danger of frost has passed. Seeds should be started six to eight weeks before the last projected frost date.

Harvesting

Chinese lantern plant pods are often used in Halloween crafts (due to their orange color), harvest-themed decorations, and dried flower arrangements for fall. When the pods have changed to their orange to reddish-orange color, it's time to harvest them. First, cut off a stem with pods at ground level. Strip off the leaves, and then suspend the whole stem upside down in a dark, cool place with good ventilation (for example, a garage) to dry the pods. Drying should be complete in about a few weeks.

Common Pests and Diseases

Chinese lantern plants are prone to several insect pests, including false potato beetles, cucumber beetles, and flea beetles. If insects have infested your plants, you might notice the pods have become riddled with holes made by hungry insects. Neem oil and/or insecticidal soap sprays should be effective against most of the offending pests.

Moreover, various bacterial and fungal diseases can attack the plants, and crowding can promote the spread of these diseases (space plants at least three feet apart). You might notice leaf discoloration or a plant that is wilting and failing to thrive. Cut back diseased foliage if you see it.

Article Sources
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  1. Guide to Poisonous Plants - Chinese LanternColorado State University

  2. Three-lined Potato Beetle. University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment

  3. It Takes Three to Make a Plant Sick. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach