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Gardening is all about planning ahead. By planting your seeds early, you can enjoy fresh fruits, vegetables, and even attractive flowers in the future. One species in particular, the Chinese lantern plant, rewards patient gardeners who plant it in spring with vivid colors that can beautify their homes through fall and winter.
The Chinese lantern plant is strictly ornamental. This species is prized for its bright orange, balloon- or bell-shaped husks. You can harvest and dry these husks to use in fall décor and craft projects, or simply enjoy their vibrant hues in the garden. Just be sure your Chinse lanterns are planted safely away from children and pets, as this species is highly toxic when ingested.
- Botanical Name: Physalis alkekengi
- Common Name: Chinese lantern plant, winter cherry, bladder cherry
- Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
- Mature Size: Up to 2 feet tall and wide
- Sun Exposure: Part shade to full sun
- Soil Type: Moist, well-drained soil
- Soil pH: 6.6-7.3
- Toxicity: Toxic to humans and pets
Caring for Chinese lantern plants is similar to other nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Keep the 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 plan to grow this species in-ground as garden plants, it's a good idea to spread a few inches of organic mulch like hay or straw around them to maintain soil moisture and keep weeds down. However, because they tend to spread if left unchecked, you may want to grow Chinese lantern plants in a container instead. If you have a porch, patio, or fire escape, you can keep the pot there. You can even sink it into the ground to help keep the roots contained.
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. When it begins to die back for the winter, cut down the plant at its base. Its roots will survive the cold season, and when warm weather returns, your Chinese lantern plant will begin growing again.
To preserve its attractive foliage for floral decorations, tie the stems of your Chinese lantern plant into bundles and hang them upside-down in a cool, dark place indoors (any seeds that drop can be replanted next year). Once they've dried after a couple of weeks, you can keep the husks on their stems or trim them off as separate pieces of décor.
Best Growing Conditions for Chinese Lantern Plant
Choose a spot with full sun to plant or display your Chinese lantern plant. This species can withstand somewhat shady conditions, but a west- 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 to prevent scorched foliage.
When it comes to water, it's better to lean towards too little rather than too much. This species is prone to root rot when overwatered, and early signs like yellow or wilted leaves are a good indicator. Since Chinese lantern plants also look similar when they're thirsty, if you suspect that your plant is overwatered, check the soil moisture and allow its pot to drain fully before adding water.
Like its relatives, the Chinese lantern plant needs warm weather around 70 to 75 degrees and nighttime temperatures above 55 degrees to survive, so wait until a few weeks after the last frost to bring yours outside for the growing season. When it begins getting colder, 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 debug your plant before bringing it inside in the fall.
Types of Chinese Lantern Plant
As a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), the Chinese lantern plant is a relative of plants like edible ground cherries (Physalis spp.), tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), eggplants (Solanum melongena), potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), and even popular peppers.
Many species in this flowering family are used for food, but since the Chinese lantern plant is toxic, it's grown instead for its attractive foliage. Nightshade plants come in a wide variety of sizes, colors, and other physical characteristics. Many of their leaves feature signature "prickles," or hairs, and they can grow as vines, perennial herbs, epiphytes (which grow on other plants), and more.
How to Propagate Chinese Lantern Plant
The best way to propagate Chinese lantern plants is by growing them from seeds, which are readily produced by mature plants inside their colorful husks. It's 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.
As another option, many gardeners choose to start their seeds indoors early in the year, allowing them to grow stronger before being planted outside during the growing season. Here's how:
Step 1: Gather the Chinese lantern plant seeds, a seed tray, a heat mat, fresh potting soil, and a plant grow light.
Step 2: About six weeks before the last frost date, start seeds indoors by setting the seeds on top of fresh soil in the seed tray. You can also opt to use a seed-starting mix for the best results.
Step 3: Set the seed tray atop a heat mat, ensuring soil temperatures stay between 60 and 70 degrees. Place the seeds in a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight per day and keep the soil evenly moist.
Step 4: Once the seeds sprout, begin using the grow light for 16 hours per day. Continue growing them under the light until it's warm enough to transplant them outside. Care for the plants as usual.
Common Problems With Chinese Lantern Plant
Chinese lantern plants are generally easy to care for, but like many plants in the garden, they're susceptible to pests. This species may also experience problems with incorrect amounts of water. Here's how to diagnose and treat your plant:
Chinese lantern plants can 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 plant. If it's infested, treat the plant by rubbing down the entirety of its leaves, stems, and husks with neem oil to keep pests at bay.
Yellowed leaves on a Chinese lantern plant typically indicate that the plant isn't receiving the right amount of water. If the soil feels dry to the touch, your plant is likely thirsty. This can also happen when it's rootbound in its container, preventing the roots from soaking up moisture. On the other hand, if water has pooled in the bottom of the pot, your plant could be overwatered and showing early signs of root rot. Allow it to drain and almost dry out, then cut back on your watering schedule in the future.
Potting and Repotting Chinese Lantern Plant
Because they grow so aggressively, pot your plant in a good-sized container when you first begin growing it. 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 its roots.
Remove the plant from the pot, then use your fingers to loosen the excess soil 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.
How to Get Chinese Lantern Plant to Bloom
Chinese lantern plants typically bloom easily within their first year of growth. Their small, white flowers begin blooming in the summer before the husks change to their signature red and orange hues in the fall. The best way to ensure your plants bloom is to maintain proper levels of moisture in the soil, along with providing fertilizer during the growing season. Plants that don't receive enough water (or receive too much) may be less likely to flower.
Do Chinese Lantern Plants Spread?
Like many other plants in the nightshade family, Chinese lantern plants are known for their spreading growth habits. These plants can outgrow their section in your garden quickly, so if you're working with limited space, it's best to prune them as needed and limit their root spread by placing barriers in the ground.
Can Chinese Lantern Plants Grow in Pots?
Many gardeners choose to grow their Chinese lantern plants in pots to contain them in a specific area. These plants can thrive in pots both above ground and sunken into the garden soil, so the best place to grow your plant comes down to personal preference (as long as it has suitable light exposure).
Can You Keep a Chinese Lantern Plant Indoors?
Chinese lantern plants can be grown in low-light conditions, so they're a suitable houseplant for the right home. However, this species is toxic, so it's important to keep your plant out of reach of children and pets. In most cases, this means that a fenced-in garden or greenhouse is the safest option.
Toxic Plants (by Scientific Name). University of California. 2022