Chinese lantern is a hardy perennial that provides colorful fall interest and can be grown in the ground or in containers. It is a clump-forming plant with 3-inch long medium green leaves. Small white bell-shaped flowers appear in summer, but they are insignificant. The real appeal lies in the signature lanterns, which are seed pods that start out green and mature to a bright pumpkin-orange at the end of the growing season in early fall. The 2-inch-wide papery pod, called a calyx, serves as a protective cover over the flower and fruit.
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. Be careful where you plant it because it can overrun your garden beds and even sprout into turfgrass. 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.
Chinese lantern is easy to grow and is best planted in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. This fast-growing plant that will reach maturity and bloom in its first season.
|Botanical Name||Physalis alkekengi|
|Common Name||Chinese lantern, winter cherry, ground cherry|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||1–2 feet tall and wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Average, medium moisture, well-draining|
|Soil pH||6.6–7.3 (neutral)|
|Hardiness Zones||3–9 (USDA)|
|Native Areas||Europe, Northern Asia|
|Toxicity||Seed pods and berries are toxic to people and pets|
Chinese Lantern Care
Chinese lantern will grow well in any average soil, provided it is well-drained and evenly moist. The biggest challenge is keeping the plant in check as it will spread aggressively if you don't keep an eye on it.
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 plants that pop up via the underground root system.
Chinese lantern plants grow best in full sun but tolerate part sun conditions. But in warm climates, the plant is best grown in part shade.
Chinese lanterns prefer average, well-draining soil that is consistently moist. Rich soils may cause the plant to spread faster than you want, so there are some advantages to growing it in more meager soil.
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 any 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.
Feed in the spring after new growth appears with a light application of balanced fertilizer—unless the plants have proved too aggressive, in which case you can withhold feeding. If using granular fertilizer, make sure to keep it away from the plant's crown and foliage. Too much fertilizer can stimulate fast growth rates, which may encourage root rot as well as uncontrolled spreading.
Chinese Lantern vs. Tomatillo
There are no cultivars of P. alkekengi; only the species plant is commonly grown in gardens. However, another closely related member of the Physalis genus sometimes grown ornamentally or as a perennial edible vegetable is the tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa) also called Mexican husk tomato.
This plant has a similar growth habit and cultural needs to the Chinese lantern, but inside the papery husks, the plant produces a tomato-like fruit that is edible and commonly used in salsas. As the yellow to purple fruits ripen, they split open the husks to reveal themselves. the fruits can be quite attractive in the landscape, even if you do not harvest them for eating.
How to Grow Chinese Lantern From Seeds
You can sow your seeds outdoors in the late spring. Or, for faster results, you can start the seeds indoors and transplant the seedlings outside after all danger of frost has passed. Seeds started indoors should be planted in seedling trays six to eight weeks before the last projected frost date.
When sowing outside, poor soils can first be improved by working in organic material into the top 6 inches of soil. Sow the seeds across the soil, barely covering them with 1/4 inch of soil. Keep the soil moist; seedlings will emerge in 14 to 21 days. When starting indoors, sow the seeds in a similar fashion in seed-starting mix, then set the tray in a warm, sunny location and keep the seeds moist until they sprout. Seedlings will need to be hardened off before transplanting into the garden.
Starting Chinese lantern plants from seeds is a good way to grow them as annuals 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.
Propagating Chinese Lantern
Chinese lantern can easily be propagated by cutting away a section of growth with roots attached and replanting. Spring is the best time for this method. The volunteer seedlings that sprout up when a Chinese lantern self-seeds can also be dug up and transferred to a new garden location.
It is also relatively easy to collect the dried seeds from the plants and store them for planting in the spring.
Chinese lantern plant pods with their pumpkin-like color are often used in Halloween crafts, 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 a few weeks.
Common Pests/ 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.
Various bacterial and fungal diseases can attack the plants, and crowding can promote the spread of these diseases (space plants at least 2 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.