The Chinese lantern plant is a hardy perennial that gives you colorful visual interest in the fall, and you can grow it in containers or in the ground without issues. It’s a clump-forming plant that produces medium-green leaves that are three inches long. Summertime brings about small but insignificant bell-shaped flowers, and the fall brings in the real appeal to the Chinese lantern plant. The signature lanterns on this plant are actually seed pods that start out green before maturing to a bright orange at the end of the growing season. The plants produce a two-inch wide papery pod that is a protective cover for the fruit and flower, and it’s called a calyx.
Before you plant your Chinese lantern plant in your garden, you should know that it is an aggressive grower that will spread very quickly using reseeding and underground rhizomes. It can easily overrun your garden beds if you don’t keep it in check and sprout into turfgrass. This is why it’s a good idea to grow them in containers to keep them from invading your property. Getting rid of them is a challenging task too.
You want to plant them during the spring month after the frost recedes for the year. It will reach full maturity and bloom within the first season of growth. The fruits, both the seed pods and berries, and the plant’s leaves are highly toxic.
The Chinese lantern plant is a very popular option to add to fall gardens for a bright pop of color.
History of the Chinese Lantern Plant
The Chinese lantern plant is officially known as Alkekengi officinarum, and it’s a herbaceous perennial that is hardy in zones three to nine. It was originally classified as Physalis alkekengi, and it has a strong family resemblance to the Physalis genus, particularly the tomatillo and ground cherry. It’s a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, and the Chinese lantern plant is also related to tomatoes, petunias, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.
Just like the tomatillo and ground cherry, the Chinese lantern plant grows the fruits in an enclosed papery husk or calyx. Before we talk about the husks themselves, let’s dive into the other features this deciduous plant offers so you’ll know what to expect. They produce alternate medium green leaves that grow to be roughly three inches long. It gets around 30 inches tall at full maturity, and it has a two or three foot-spread.
The flowers on this plant are very inconspicuous as they are yellowish-white, small, and star-shaped. The main visual interest for this plant starts when the little white flowers turn to fruit. Small green husks will start to grow, and inside them, the seeds start to mature as they’re hidden.
Late in the summer months or early autumn, the husks turn from a green color to a bright reddish-orange, and this makes them look like miniature paper lanterns, and this is where the Chinese lantern plant got the name. The fruits will stay hidden inside the calyx until they start to break down in the winter months. As the husk breaks down, they leave a very fine lattice work with a bright reddish-orange “cherry” inside. This lends to the plant’s other common name, “Love in a Cage.” The round, small fruit is roughly an inch in diameter, and you may hear the Chinese lantern plant called the strawberry ground cherry, strawberry tomato, and the Japanese lantern.
The original genus name of Physalis comes from the Greek word meaning “bladder,” and this refers to the calyx’s shape, and it also gave way to the name “bladder cherry.” The calyx covered stems on this plant can be dried and used in bouquets during fall or winter. It’s native to Asia and Europe, and the first known record of this plant is the Codex Vindobonensis book, or the Codex Aniciae Julianae. This book was a manuscript on medicinal plants that was created around the sixth century.
Not all sources have adopted the Chinese lantern plant’s new classification yet, so you’ll see it listed as P. alkekengi, and some people call it P. franchetii. Although most people grow it as an ornamental plant today, the other of the Codex Aniciae Julianae considered it to be a medicinal plant, and they were originally used to treat everything from urinary problems to kidney stones.
- Caution: While you can eat the round, small fruits of the Chinese lantern plant when they’re ripe, the unripe fruits and all other parts of the plant are considered to be highly toxic if you eat them. The fruit supposedly tastes very bland or very acidic, depending on who you ask.
No matter if you plan on using the Chinese lantern plant as an ornamental or for medicinal uses, you should note that it spreads using underground rhizomes in a very aggressive manner. Some areas have it listed as being invasive, and this is a huge reason why you should contain it instead of allowing it to take over.
Chinese Lantern Plant – Quick Overview
|Late summer to early fall
|Aphids, cutworms, whiteflies, slugs, black rot, powdery mildew, damping off, and Alternaria leaf spot
|Coneflower, Bachelor’s buttons, New England Aster
|Full sun to partial shade
|Flower and Foliage Color:
|Small white flowers with large reddish-orange calyxes
|Three to nine
|Asia and Europe
|Seeds are ¼ inch
|6.1 to 7.8
|Loam, sand, and clay with organic material mixed in
|18 to 24 inches
|One to two feet
|Time to Maturity:
|Cold-hardy once established
|Ornamental, cut flower and dried flower arrangements
Chinese Lantern Care
Generally speaking, the Chinese lantern plant will grow well in almost every average soil as long as it’s evenly moist and drains well. The biggest challenge is keeping it from taking over once it starts growing as it will if you don’t keep a close eye on it.
Once your plants mature, the biggest challenge is safeguarding them from pests. It’s also important to decide whether you wish to grow them right in the ground or in a container or raised bed. Without a barrier, you’ll spend a lot of time removing unwanted plants that pop up throughout your yard, especially if you follow the recommended growing conditions below.
Feed your plant in the spring after new growth starts to pop up using a light application of a balanced fertilizer. If the plants are too aggressive, you can hold off on feeding them to help curb the growth. If you use a granular fertilizer, make sure you don’t get it on the plant’s crown and foliage. Adding too much fertilizer will encourage rapid growth, and this can mean uncontrolled spreading with root rot.
The Chinese lantern plant grows best in full sun, but it can tolerate being in partial shade. In warm environments, you’ll want to grow it in part shade where it has cover from the harsh afternoon sun.
Ideally, you’ll put your plant in an area that gets full sun, but you want to shade it if you live in a hot planting zone from the afternoon sun to prevent scorching.
Chinese lanterns like well-draining, average soil that is consistently moist. You should keep the pH neutral at 6.6 and 7.3. Rich soil can cause the plant to spread far too fast, so putting it in poorer soil does have advantages.
Temperature and Humidity
The Chinese lantern plant can tolerate cooler temperatures, but any frost will kill it and make it die back for the year. It doesn’t have any humidity requirements like many other plants do, and the seeds will start to germinate when the temperatures reach between 60°F and 70°F.
When this plant is young, it needs regular watering to keep the soil evenly moist but not soaked or soggy. Once they mature, the Chinese lantern plants are more drought-tolerant, but pod and flower production is better with a consistent soil moisture level.
Chinese Lantern Plant Propagation
As we’ve touched on a few times now, this plant isn’t the perfect fit for all types of gardeners. It is a beautiful specimen to have that can make a fantastic addition to a fall garden or a dried flower bouquet, one thing is abundantly clear.
This plant is very invasive, and they spread everywhere using rhizomes. This is a type of stem that runs horizontally under the ground, and it creates whole new roots as it spreads. Some plants that produce using this method are highly aggressive when it comes to growing, including poison ivy, Japanese knotweed, and stinging nettle. However, the most aggressive types include the Chinese lantern plant, Virginia Creeper, Plume Poppy, and the Tansy.
The best cuttings usually come from the roots of this plant, but any sprig that is healthy in looks and has green growth on it will work just fine for propagation. Chinese lantern plants develop runners instead of roots, and if you see one with greenery one it, all you have to do is cut it off, roughly an inch is enough. Once you have your cutting, you’ll plant it in a multi-purpose soil in a container. Make sure that your soil is moist but you don’t want it soggy, and keep it moist throughout the propagation period. It can also be a good idea to add fertilizer to encourage growth, and the best you can get includes fish, blood, or bone meal.
Despite the invasive nature of the Chinese lantern plant, they can brighten up your space nicely, especially when the seed pods ripen to the pretty orangish-red color. Growing these plants is easy as you can start them from seeds without an issue. They are vulnerable to chilly temperatures, so you do want to take steps to protect the seeds from temperature fluctuations, but they grow more resilient as they establish themselves. They can grow in partially shaded areas, and they’ll grow healthy as long as they have enough sunlight reaching them.
Late spring is the best time to propagate the Chinese lantern plant from seed because it is just after the last frost of the season recedes. It’s recommended to grow them indoors because they have a longer germination period, and it can take four to six weeks before you see any activity once you plant the seeds. Give them a general purpose fertilizer once a month, and put down a layer of mulch to keep the soil moist and rich while stopping weed growth at the same time.
Ideally, you’ll space your Chinese lantern plants two feet apart from one another and from any other plants so they can spread out. Once you plant them and they mature, they’re largely maintenance-free, and this makes them great for first-time gardeners.
Propagating this plant is very easy, and it will take off and spread under the right conditions all over your yard.
Harvesting Chinese Lantern Plants
The plant pods on Chinese lanterns with their orangish-red color are very commonly used in Halloween crafts, dried fall flower arrangements, and with harvest-themed decorations. When the pods change to the reddish-orange or orange color, it’s time to harvest them. The first thing you do is cut the stem off with the pods at ground level. Strip off the leaves and suspend the whole thing upside in a cool, dark space that has great ventilation like in a garage. This will dry the pods, and they should be ready to use in two or three weeks.
Uses for the Chinese Lantern Plant
Aside from the ornamental use around Halloween, many people use the Chinese lantern plant to attract butterflies. You can also use it as a border plant for edging around the garden, even though it’s quite invasive in the United States and in other parts of the world. This is why it’s a good idea to grow it in containers.
The fruit is edible with it’s fully ripe, but it can have a very acidic taste. If the fruit is dried, this can improve the taste. It’s also popular in herbal medicine, but not many people use it today. You can use the fruit to make a remedy for bladder or kidney issues. During Halloween, the color is the most brilliant, so it’s a popular decoration for this time of year.
Chinese Lantern Plant Common Diseases and Pests
Along with having a very colorful berry-enclosed husk, the Chinese lantern plant is deer-resistant. It’s also not a huge target for diseases or pests either. If you do have a problem, it’s most likely one of the following:
This plant is fairly disease-resistant, but it can get sick. Some of the most common diseases to cause issues with your Chinese lantern plant include:
Alternaria Leaf Spot
This is a fungal disease, and you can recognize it by the small lesions it leaves on the plant’s foliage and stems. The lesions are usually brown, gray, or tan with yellow rings. The disease can impact the bladder cherry but a host of other garden plants too, including cauliflower, turnips, and kale. Crowded plants and wet leaves make conditions perfect for this disease to take hold, so you want to water at soil level to protect the plant instead of watering overhead, and make sure you space them properly.
If you spot this disease on your Chinese lantern plant, you want to remove any affected plants to prevent it from spreading. Wash your tools and your hands before you touch any other plants. To treat leaf spot organically, use neem oil. However, neem oil isn’t only a fungicide, but it’s also an organic pesticide that can hurt beneficial insects. Use it sparingly for the best results.
Damping off is another fungal disease that causes your plant’s seedlings to wither and die very quickly. Since it’s impossible to revive the seedlings once they die from damping off, prevention is key. Preventing damping off all comes down to using good practices when you sow the seeds.
Finally, powdery mildew is a fungal disease that is caused by hundreds of different fungi species. The biggest signs of this disease is the plant’s leaves and stems look like they were drenched in a white powder. The fungi that cause this disease will suck the nutrients out of the plants to weaken them, and it causes distorted or wilted leaves.
As this is a member of the nightshade family, it can attract the same insects that love to eat your eggplants and tomatoes. Some of the most common pests that can attack your Chinese lantern plants include:
Aphids are tiny insects that you can find on your garden plants. They tend to be on the underside of the plant leaves, and they suck nutrients from the plant to weaken them and stop them from thriving. You can remove minor aphid infestations by using your garden hose and spraying them once or twice. Another way to keep them in check is to lure beneficial insects to the area like green lacewings or ladybugs that eat them.
If the cutworm visits your young Chinese lantern plants, this pest will leave a seeding with a stem that has been cut off close to the base. The remainder of the plant will be left alone to lay in the dirt. Cutworms aren’t actually true worms, but they are caterpillars. They’re roughly 1.5 inches long, and they can be gray, brown, greenish, or white in color. There are dozens of types of cutworms alive, and they can wreak havoc on your Chinese lantern plants in different ways.
They’re usually a problem in the spring with young plants, and they tend to hide under vegetation or the soil during the day and come out at night to eat. The larvae are very dangerous to young seedlings because the plant won’t recover once it eats through the stem.
You can place collars around the young plants to protect them from this pest. An empty toilet paper roll will work if you put it around your seedling and bury it a few inches in the ground. By the time the roll decomposes, the seedling should have a cutworm-proof, tough stem. Also, birds like robins can be helpful in controlling cutworms, so give them a place to perch and scan the garden. Parasitic wasps are another option that will target these pests, so plant cosmos, dill, and cilantro to lure them in.
Finally, flea beetles are a problem for Chinese lantern plants. These insects will chew round, small holes or pits in the foliage of your plants. There are different flea beetles, so the color may not be the best way to describe them. Instead, you can recognize them by size as most of them are no bigger than ⅛-inch long. They’re also very good at jumping away from you when you try to pick it up. Using row covers can help deter this pest.
Chinese lantern plants are a beautiful option to add to your container garden or raised garden beds to provide stunning orangish-red colors in the fall months. They’re very pretty dried, and the mature plants require very little maintenance to keep them growing and coming back year after year.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.