Plants

Chinese Lantern

Physalis alkekengi

The bright orange paperies of the Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) add a pop of color to any fall bed, and are popular in floristry.

Growth type
  • Perennial plant
Growth height (from)
from 60 cm to 80 cm
Growth width (from)
from 30 cm to 40 cm
Growth characteristics
  • upright
  • foothills
  • bushy
Flower color
  • white
Flowering time (month)
  • July to September
Flower shape
  • terminal
  • small
  • unimpressive
Leaf color
  • green
page format
  • 3-7 pieces
  • heart-shaped
Sheet properties
  • Autumn coloring
Light
  • sunny to semi-shade
Soil type
  • sandy to loamy
Soil Moisture
  • dry to fresh
ph value
  • neutral
Lime compatibility
  • lime-loving
Nutrient requirements
  • moderately nutritious
Humus
  • rich in humus
Decorative or utility value
  • Fruit ornaments
Toxicity
  • toxic
Winter Hardness
  • hardy
Use
  • Flowerbeds
  • Bouquets
Garden style
  • cottage garden
  • Flower garden

Origin

There are lanterns hanging all around the garden in fall. The Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi), an old garden perennial, adds a pop of color to the perennial bed with its cordate sinuate sepals in a bright shade of orange-red. The plant is part of the Physalis genus (Greek for “bladder”), a nightshade (Solanaceae). Its name refers to the genus’ common characteristic: the striking sepals that form around the mature fruit. These are also popular in floristry.

This genus has around 90 species, most of which come from North and South America. The Chinese lantern originally spread from Asia to the South of Europe, and is the only one to appear in the wild in central Europe. There are two varieties: Physalis alkekengi originally comes from South Europe to West Asia and grows up to 12 to 24 inches tall. Physalis alkekengi var. franchetii (sometimes also called P. franchetii) is more commonly available to buy. This plant comes from East Asia and grows up to 39 inches tall.

Appearance and Growth

The Chinese Lantern’s main flowering period is between July and September. The cream-yellow to white star-shaped flowers make it easy to spot this plant as a member of the nightshade family. After flowering, the sepals grow together and form the plant’s characteristic lanterns that light up fall with their shades of orange to brick-red. As the sepals decompose into a kind of skeleton, the small berries inside become visible. The Chinese Lantern has green stems that become woody at the base, and can grow up to 20 to 39 inches tall, depending on the variety. The entire plant is toxic.

Bed with Chinese Lanterns

Bed with Chinese lanterns

Location and Soil

Chinese Lanterns prefer a sunny to partially shaded and limey location with sandy-humus, fresh, nutrient-rich soil.
This perennial needs more water in sunny locations. However, the Chinese Lantern does not tolerate waterlogging.

Where to plant

Forming thick stock, the Chinese Lantern is ideal for cottage gardens. It’s particularly well suited for the edges of woodland or unused corners of the garden. Companion plants should be sufficiently competitive. Day Lilies (Hemerocallis), tall Bellflowers (such as Campanula persicifolia) or loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata) are good options. Decorative foliage (such as Miscanthus) or dwarf comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum) are good partners – particularly around compost heaps.

Plants

The best time to plant is spring. From February/March, seeds can be sown and grown on windowsills or in cold frames. Simply sprinkle a little compost into the hole and add some grit to prevent the soil from compacting. Water the Chinese Lantern well to make it easier for the plant to establish in its new location. As the plant tends to sprawl, it’s advisable to use a root barrier down to a depth of 20 to 24 inches in small gardens to prevent its spread from becoming a problem. It should ideally be planted in wild groups of perennials or corners of the garden where its spread will not cause an issue.

It’s also possible to grow these plants in pots as long as good winter protection is provided. Once planted out and established well, this perennial is winter hardy in temperate zones. In colder zones, it can be covered with sticks. The Lanterns do not just lose their color over winter but also their structure. The remaining skeleton structure is, however, still attractive in its own right.

Chinese Lantern fruit pod

The fruit of the Chinese Lantern plant is encased in fibrous leaves

Pruning

It is important that the stems of this perennial are cut back no earlier than spring as these protect the overwintering plants from the effects of frost. Dead or spreading shoots can be cut in the main growing season. Use sharp garden shears to keep injuries to the plant as minimal as possible.

Propagation

As this perennial is very prone to propagating itself, the gardener does not have to think about propagation. Species can be propagated through sowing seed, while varieties require dividing.

Diseases and Pests

Apart form aphids and root rot, no other harmful insects or fungal infections are known to affect Physalis alkekengi. If the leaves of young Chinese Lanterns show white to brown discoloration and begin to wilt, this is often just a sign that the plant is not tolerating direct sunlight and must get used to its location.

Wreath with Chinese Lanterns

Chinese lantern is suitable for wreaths and floral arrangements

More tips

This nightshade doesn’t just look good in the garden: this perennial can be used as a long-lasting cut plant for countless decorative projects in fall. The red Lanterns can be dried as well to decorate windows or make bouquets, arrangements and wreaths all winter long. To dry this plant and its characteristic leaves, simply put the cut stems in a vase with a little water in early fall. This way, the sepals will dry very slowly and retain their bright orange-red color.

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