Physalis Alkekengi Overview
|Official Plant Name||Physalis Alkekengi|
|Common Name(s)||Chinese Lanterns|
|Plant Type||Perennial Flower|
|Native Area||Southern Europe, South & North-East Asia|
|Toxicity||Toxic if ingested|
|Flowers||Fleshy berries with colourful lantern-like calyxes|
|When To Sow||February, March, April|
|Flowering Months||July, August, September, October|
|When To Prune||September, October|
Full Shade or Partial Shade
Exposed or Sheltered
0.5 – 1M
0.5 – 1M
July – October
Chalk, Loam, Sand
Physalis alkekengi, or Chinese lantern, is a plant in the nightshade family well-known for its resplendent red fruit husks that give way to intricate and delicate skeletal casings as the season progresses.
If you’ve not seen this transition take place, you’re in for a treat. It’s one of the most beautiful and unsung floral processes you can see in the UK.
For a British gardener looking for a plant to bring the air of the Orient, you can’t do much better than this wonder. And what’s more, the plant is hardy enough to do well in UK growing conditions, making it a popular and rewarding choice.
This guide will run through everything you need to know to get a Chinese lantern established and thriving in your garden. After reading, you’ll be able to enjoy the unique and captivating aesthetic of this plant from the comfort of your own home.
What are Chinese lanterns?
Although there are many colloquial names for physalis alkekengi – including devils’ berry, winter cherry, strawberry-and-tomato, and more – Chinese lantern is the most common. The name has stuck because it perfectly describes the dainty, paper-thin casings that surround the plant’s fruit. It’s not hard to imagine replacing the fruit with a tiny light bulb, and seeing a string of these fruity fairy lights in the backdrop of a painting or photograph of a Chinese streetscape.
Because of its striking appearance, the Chinese lantern is popular worldwide as an ornamental plant. The fruit is used in some medicinal traditions, too. And the plant even has its own festival in Japan, when each July, Buddhists in Asakusa make offerings to help souls on their way to the afterlife.
The image of a healthy fruit safely contained within the skeletal remains of the husk that gave rise to it is a beautiful visual metaphor for the relationship between life and death, making it easy to see why the Chinese lantern carries such associations.
Why grow them?
If you’re looking for something attractive and captivating for your garden, you’ll likely not need any other reasons to choose a Chinese lantern. This plant boasts many properties that make it an attractive prospect for any gardener, however.
Firstly, it’s a perennial, meaning that its delightful fruits will return year after year. They’re also very hardy, being able to survive even the most punishing of weather conditions, including temperatures below -20 degrees.
In terms of visual interest, Chinese lanterns have a lot to offer. Their season begins with white flowers – attractive but not massively noteworthy – that begin to bud around July. Through summer and autumn, these flourish into the fruit husks we’ve seen above, which start green and develop into a deep, enticing orange as they ripen. Then, if left alone, the plant material will die away, leaving the skeletal casing.
This, in our opinion, is reason enough to grow the plant. The transition really is beautiful, and it’s hard to capture the nuance with words. The best way is to grow a Chinese lantern of your own and watch in real time, preferably with a camera at the ready.
How to grow Chinese lanterns
In the UK, it’s possible to grow Chinese lanterns from seeds or from cuttings.
When growing from seed, you’ll want to plant out early to give the best chance of surviving wintry conditions. The best way to do this is to grow in a small pot initially, with mixed, moist compost. Add a couple of seeds to the top layer, and then cover with a very thin layer of compost. Leave them in a well-lit position but not in direct sunlight, at room temperature. After about two weeks you should see shoots poking through.
Then, move to full sunlight. At this stage the plants can handle lower temperatures, although avoid frost at all costs until they are fully established.
To grow from cuttings, look below the soil surrounding a section with healthy growth. Underground, there’ll be a runner with thin roots growing from it: Snip a section of this about 3cm in length, then plant in a container. The container should be of similar depth to the area you removed the cutting from.
Where to grow your plant
Most gardeners recommend growing Chinese lanterns in containers rather than directly into garden soil, because their roots are very enthusiastic and the plant can quickly turn invasive, competing with other plants in your garden for resources and stifling growth.
After initially being planted into small pots, Chinese lanterns can be moved to larger pots when they are established. Choosing a pot that complements the aesthetic of the adult Chinese lantern plant is a reliable way to provide real visual interest in your garden.
These plants are hungry fellas when they’re getting established! A monthly portion of fertiliser like blood, fish, and bone will give them the right balance of nutrients they need to ensure healthy adult growth.
Make sure you water your Chinese lanterns regularly, especially if you take the advice to grow them in containers (note: We recommend this!). This plant thrives best in moist but well-drained soil. Make sure your containers have drainage holes at the bottom to allow excess water to drip out, as moisture retention can lead to root rot.
Grown in a container, there’s little need to prune a Chinese lantern plant. If you grow in the ground, however, you might have a bit of a battle on your hands keeping the plant in check!
You can gently cut the lanterns from the plant before they transition to the skeletal form, if you want to preserve them. To do this, simply cut the stem with scissors at the stage you want to preserve: Green, yellow, or orange. The deepest orange will occur in late September.
We’ve written previously about growing Chinese lanterns from cutting. Propagation is a popular and reliable way to spread this plant, and cuttings or young plants make great gifts for friends and family.
Troubleshooting Chinese lantern problems
There are a few pests to keep an eye out for when growing a Chinese lantern. Here’s what to look for, and how to treat them.
These busybodies like to take residence on particularly tasty plants, munching holes in the leaves and causing damage to the plant in general. The best course of action to control against caterpillars is to simply remove any you see, along with the small yellow or white eggs they’ll eventually hatch from.
Surrounding your plant with netting or some other material that caterpillars can’t breach is also an option, although obviously this interferes with the visual appeal of the plant.
A range of insecticides are available to keep more persistent caterpillars at bay, ranging from organic pesticides to products containing more hardcore chemicals. We always advise starting with the more humane options, like removing the bugs by hand, before moving onto chemical control.
Slugs and snails
If you’ve grown anything, anywhere, ever, chances are that you’ve encountered the endless hunger of slugs and snails. These guys live for the opportunity to invade your garden and eat the fruits of your labour – quite literally!
And sadly, Chinese lanterns are not immune to their visitations. Growing in a container offers some control, as slugs and snails may struggle to climb up to the plant. However, don’t be surprised if particularly intrepid specimens find their way into eating range.
Removing visitors by hand is one option, as is erecting a barrier. You can also place Chinese lantern near sacrificial plants: Those intended to attract the slugs and snails’ attention before they find the plant of higher value. Beer traps are also a reliable option: Slugs and snails both are attracted by the intriguing scent of beer, and often accidentally drown themselves while investigating.
As we said before, though: The humane options are usually the best..!
Hanging with your Chinese lanterns
This plant is one of our favourite, if only for its truly unique visual element. The Oriental air conjured up by the delicate lanterns, ranging in colour from new green to a real, rich orange, is undeniable. The plant is confident enough to dazzle by itself in a container, or as part of a display of other plants in and around your garden.
Pair the visual interest with forgiving growth requirements, and the Chinese lantern stands out from the crowd as a real all-rounder, great for established gardeners as well as the newly-green thumbed amongst us.
Whatever your experience and gardening goals, a Chinese lantern is sure to make a great impression. We wish you the best in getting yours established and thriving.