Chinese Lantern Plant Profile

Three Chinese lantern pods against black background.

John Grant / Getty Images

Chinese lantern plants are hardy herbaceous perennials that offer some fall interest (with their colorful "lanterns") and can be grown equally well in the ground and 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. This autumnal color makes them valued for fall decorations. Chinese lantern is not difficult to grow; in fact, it can grow aggressively and spread quickly via underground rhizomes and by reseeding (if you do not harvest all of the pods). For this reason, it is considered invasive in some areas.

Botanical Name Physalis alkekengi (sometimes listed as P. franchetii)
Common Name Chinese lantern plant, winter cherry, ground cherry
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 2 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun in cold climates; partial sun in warmer climates
Soil Type Well-drained sandy or clay
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Mid-summer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 3 to 9
Native Areas Eurasia
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 white flowers. The flowers, which are insignificant, 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 protective cover over the flower and fruit.

Once they mature, most of the care needed by these plants is keeping insect pests at bay. It's also important to decide ahead of time whether or not you wish to grow these plants directly in the ground (without a barrier or container) and take your chances with their invasive nature. It'll take less time and energy to think the matter out in the beginning and act accordingly than to decide later that you don't like the way they spread and try to remove them

Light

Grow Chinese lanterns in full sun in cold climates. In warm climates, the plants can be grown in partial shade.

Soil

Chinese lanterns do best in well-drained soil that is evenly moist. Once mature, the plants become reasonably tolerant of poor soils.

Water

When young, Chinese lanterns need to be kept watered. The soil should feel moist, but not soaked. They are also reasonably drought-tolerant ground covers once mature, although flower and pod production will be better with regular watering and feeding.

Temperature and Humidity

This plant can stand cooler temperatures, but avoid exposure to frost. It does not have any humidity requirements. The seeds will germinate when temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fertilizer

Fertilize monthly during the growing season in the spring. Compost works well for enriching the soil.

Propagating Chinese Lantern Plants

Gardeners usually buy seeds for the plants and sow them outdoors in late spring. Some start them indoors for a head start and transplant them outside after all danger of frost has passed. Seeds should be started six to eight weeks before the last frost. Starting from seed is a good way to grow this plant as an annual, saving the seeds and destroying the plant at the end of the season.

Toxicity of Chinese Lantern Plants

Both the unripe berries and leaves of Chinese lantern plants are poisonous to humans and animals. Children who eat unripe berries can experience gastroenteritis and diarrhea. Cattle and horses that eat the plants can suffer from diarrhea, bloat, and colic, as well as more severe potential symptoms, including slowed heart rate, coma, and death.

When mature, the berries are edible and have traditional medicinal uses. They are not good eating, in any case. They are generally tasteless, and some people find them bitter.

Harvesting the Pods

Chinese lantern pods are 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 much-valued orange to reddish-orange color, it's time to harvest them. Remove a plant by cutting its stem off at ground level. Strip the leaves off, then suspend the whole plant, upside down, from a nail or string. Dry the harvested pods in a dark, cool place with good ventilation (perhaps a garage). Drying should be complete in a few weeks' time.

Common Pests and Diseases

Chinese lanterns can be troubled by many plant diseases and insect pests, including false potato beetles, cucumber beetles, and flea beetles. It's truly a shame to witness a beautiful pod form during the summer, only to have it later become riddled with holes made by hungry insects. Neem oil and/or insecticidal soap sprays should help against most of the offending pests.

Because various bacterial and fungal diseases can attack them, give your Chinese lanterns enough room (space them 3 feet on center); crowding promotes the spread of such diseases. In addition, cut back and properly dispose of foliage in fall if your plants have had any disease problem, to minimize its spread. Do not put it in the compost bin. If overcrowding occurs, divide the plants in spring.