As the name rightly suggests, Chinese lantern plants produce bright orange, ribbed seed husks that resemble the traditional Chinese lanterns. Belonging to the nightshade family (Solanaceae), these plants are included in the genus Physalis, which has other members like tomatillos, cape gooseberry, etc. Chinese lantern plants (Physalis alkekengi) have alternate names, like Japanese lantern, strawberry tomato, winter cherry, and bladder cherry. These plants are grown in flower gardens for the colorful seed husks, that are also dried and used for decorative purposes.
Growing Chinese Lantern Plants
Chinese lantern plants are easy to grow and require minimal care. This plant is grown from seeds, and once established, they can turn invasive. You can find newer plants growing from the horizontal rhizomes of the parent plant. So if you want to prevent these plants from spreading, you have to grow them in containers or pots buried in ground.
Choose an appropriate location with enough sunlight and well-drained soil. The plant will also thrive in places with partial shade. The soil has to be rich and moist, and not soggy. The best time to plant the seeds is late spring, after the last frost. You may also grow the seeds in seed trays indoors, 4 to 6 months before the last frost. Generally, the seeds are directly planted after the last frost.
While planting the seeds or seedlings on ground, make sure to leave a space of two to three feet in between. Mulching will prove beneficial for the plant, as this retains the soil moisture, and prevents growth of weeds to some extent. Make sure to place the mulch around the plant at a depth of about two to three inches. As these plants are invasive, they have a tendency to spread and produce new growths in the surrounding area.
Water the plants during dry weather conditions, and feeding can be done with a regular fertilizer, once in every season. Pruning should be done, as and when you notice diseased branches. Chinese lantern plants grow fast, and produce flowers during the first year itself. Before winter, harvest the lanterns, and cut down the plants. Only a few inches of the main stems must remain. Once in every five to six years, you may separate the rhizomes and plant them in different locations.
Know More About the Plant
Chinese lantern plants can grow to a height of around 60 centimeters. During mid summer, white flowers with five petals are produced by these plants. It is the basal calyx (composed of sepals) of these flowers that develop to the bright orange papery covering of the fruits. The fruits of the plant resemble cherry tomato, and contain numerous small seeds. As the berries mature, the papery orange husk transforms to a thin web-like covering that disintegrates, along with the dry seeds.
Traditionally, this plant is grown for culinary and medicinal purposes. While the ripe fruits are edible; the unripe berries and leaves are found to be poisonous. Even the ripe fruits of this plant must be consumed moderately. In some regions, this plant is used as a herbal medicine for treating fever, malaria, bed wetting, etc. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory agent, and as a remedy for cough. Some people use it for early labor. However, the fruits should be used with caution, as they may cause side effects like abdominal pain and miscarriage.