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Gardening is all about planning ahead: plant seeds now to enjoy fruits, vegetables, or flowers later. One species, in particular, the Chinese lantern plant, rewards patient gardeners who plant it in the spring with vivid colors that can beautify your home or garden in fall and winter.
A member of the nightshade family and a relative of the edible ground cherry and tomatillo plants, Chinese lantern plants are strictly ornamental and prized for their bright orange, balloon-shaped husks. You can harvest and dry the husks to use in fall décor and craft projects.
- Botanical Name: Physalis alkekengi
- Common Name: Chinese lantern plant, winter cherry, bladder cherry
- Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
- Mature Size: Up to two feet tall and two feet wide
- Sun Exposure: Part shade to full sun
- Soil Type: Moist, well-drained soil
- Soil pH: 6.6-7.3
- Toxicity: Toxic
Caring for Chinese lantern plants is similar to other nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Keep their soil evenly moist at all times. If needed, you can feed your Chinese lantern plant with an organic fertilizer once per month during the spring and summer, but this invasive plant often spreads via underground runners on its own.
If you plant Chinese lantern plants in the ground, it's a good idea to spread a few inches of organic mulch like hay or straw around the plant to maintain soil moisture and keep weeds down. However, because they tend to spread if left unchecked, you may want to grow the plant in a good-sized container instead. If you have a porch, patio, or fire escape, you can keep the container there. You can even sink it into the ground, where the pot will help keep the roots contained.
When the plant begins to die back for the winter, cut down the plant at the base. Tie the stems into bundles and hang them upside-down in a cool, dark place indoors to dry. If you'd like to save seeds to replant next year, you can put a cloth or tray beneath the drying husks to catch any that may drop. Once they've dried after a couple of weeks, you can keep the husks on their stems or trim them off and decorate accordingly.
In midsummer, the Chinese lantern plant blooms with small white flowers, which grow into tiny berries surrounded by a balloon-like husk, or calyx. The husks start off green, then shift to yellow, and finally a vivid orange.
Best Growing Conditions for Chinese Lantern Plant
Choose a spot with full sun to plant or display your Chinese lantern plant. The plant can withstand somewhat shady conditions, but a west-facing or south-facing exposure with lots of sunlight is ideal. If it's particularly hot where you are, an area with afternoon shade may be better for the plant.
As with other nightshades, Chinese lantern plants need warm weather and night temperatures over 55 degrees to survive, so wait until a few weeks after your last frost date to bring them outdoors. At the end of the season, frosts will cause the plant to die back. If you'd like to keep a potted specimen going as an indoor plant, be sure to bring it inside in the fall.
How to Propagate Chinese Lantern Plant
It's simple to grow Chinese lantern plants from seed. You can start them indoors in seed trays with a heat mat underneath about six weeks before the last frost date, as the soil temperature must be between 60 and 70 degrees for seeds to grow.
Keep them in a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight per day and make sure the soil is evenly moist. Once the seeds sprout, use a grow light and give them about 16 hours of light per day until it's warm enough to harden them off and transplant them outside.
It's also very easy to direct seed them in the ground or in outdoor containers once the danger of frost has passed. Simply scatter the seeds on the surface of the soil and just barely cover them, as they need sunlight to germinate. The germination process should take a couple of weeks.
Common Growing Problems
Aside from their tendency to spread, Chinese lantern plants also attract a variety of pests like flea beetles, false potato beetles, and cucumber beetles. Keep an eye out for holes in the leaves, which are a sign that insects have been eating your plants. Treat the plant with neem oil to keep them at bay.
Potting and Repotting
Because they grow so aggressively, give your plant a good-sized container in the first place. You can go up a pot size each spring, but if you'd like to keep the plant in the same pot, you'll want to prune the roots.
Remove the plant from the pot and use your fingers to loosen the soil around the roots and allow it to fall away. Cut back one-third of the plant's roots, including any rotten roots, before planting it back in the container with fresh soil. Potbound specimens can also be divided during repotting.