Chinese lantern is a hardy perennial that provides colorful fall interest and can be grown in the ground or 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 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. The fruits, both the berries and the seed pods, as well as the leaves, are highly toxic.
Chinese lantern is easy to grow and is best planted in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. This fast-growing plant will reach maturity and bloom in its first season.
Before planting Chinese lantern in a garden bed, be keenly aware that it can grow 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 best grown in containers to keep it from spreading to other areas of your property. Eradicating Chinese lantern is not an easy task.
|Common Name||Chinese lantern, winter cherry, ground cherry|
|Botanical Name||Physalis alkekengi|
|Mature Size||1–2 ft. tall, 1–2 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained|
|Hardiness Zones||3–9 (USDA)|
|Native Areas||Europe, Asia|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people, pets|
Chinese Lantern Care
Chinese lantern grows 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.
As the plants mature, the majority of their care is keeping insect pests at bay.
Chinese lantern plants grow best in full sun but tolerate part sun conditions. In warm climates, the plant is best grown in part shade.
Chinese lanterns prefer average, consistently moist and well-draining soil of neutral pH between 6.6 and 7.3. 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 is 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 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. The husks of the tomatillo do not turn bright orange like the Chinese lantern, which helps you harvest the non-toxic edible tomatillo for consumption.
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 matured 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.
Propagating Chinese Lantern
Because Chinese lantern is such a vigorous grower, gardeners are usually more concerned about preventing the plant from spreading uncontrollably instead of propagating it. Chinese lantern spreads by rhizomes or volunteer seedlings that sprout up when it self-seeds. If you still want to propagate it, here's how it's done:
- In the spring, lift the entire plant out of the ground with a shovel.
- Divide it into smaller sections with pruners.
- Plant the sections in a new location. Keep them well-watered until you see new growth.
It is also relatively easy to collect the dried seeds from the plants in the fall and store them for planting in the spring.
How to Grow Chinese Lantern From Seed
You can sow your seeds outdoors in the late spring. Or, for faster results, you can start the seeds indoors in seedling trays six to eight weeks before the last projected frost date.
When sowing outside, poor soils can first be improved by working 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, similarly sow the seeds in a 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 them into the garden after all danger of frost has passed.
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.
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, the pods can 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 overcrowding can promote the spread of these diseases. Space the plants at least two feet apart for good air circulation. You might notice leaf discoloration or a plant that is wilting and failing to thrive. Cut back any diseased foliage to prevent the spread of the disease.
Can you eat the fruit of a Chinese lantern?
No, it contains solanine, a toxic glycoalkaloid that causes poisoning in humans and animals even when consumed in small amounts and may be fatal. Unlike tomatillos, the paper husks of the Chinese lantern turn bright orange when the berries mature which helps to identify the plant.
Do Chinese lantern plants come back every year?
As a perennial, it comes back every year, however, that is not always a welcome occurrence because Chinese lantern easily becomes invasive.
Is Chinese lantern a vine?
With a mature height of only two feet, it is not a vine, and it does not require any support.
Physalis. NC State University Cooperative Extension.
Growing tomatillos and ground cherries in home gardens. University of Minnesota Extension