• Physalis Alkekengi: Growing Chinese Lanterns from Seed

August 23, 2018

Though it's most widely known as Chinese lantern and is native to Asia and southern Europe, Physalis alkekengi isn't beholden to one culture. It's called Hozuki in Japan, where festivals centered around the plant use the seeds as offerings to guide the dead, or simply celebrate the plant's decorative husks.

In a Perso-Arabic traditional medicine called Unani ("Greek" in Urdu), medicinal use of the plant draws upon Hippocrates' ancient teachings as well as the writings of Persia's "Father of Medicine," Ibn Sīnā (a.k.a. Avicenna, 980 – 1037).

Chinese lanterns have several common names, including:

  • Japanese lantern
  • Ground cherry
  • Bladder cherry (Physa is Greek for "bladder," a reference to the fruit's papery husk.)
  • Winter cherry
  • Strawberry ground cherry

It's important to note that some of the common names applied to Physalis alkekengi also refer to other closely-related but toxic species, so it's always best to verify a plant's botanical name before eating it. And yes, the fruits inside Chinese lantern's decorative, papery husks are indeed edible...though not at all flavorful, according to most. As Mrs. Grieve from A Modern Herbal writes, Chinese lantern fruits are a common item on German, Swiss, and Spanish menus, which flummoxes us given all the delicious food they've got over there.

Chinese Lanterns in the Garden

It's important to note that perennial Chinese lanterns dedicate their first growing season to establishing a deep root system. They typically don't bloom until their second season, though fall-seeded plants might produce their flowers and fused calyxes during their first "official" spring.

As with many aspects of gardening, patience pays off.

Chinese lanterns propagate by growing new shoots from a spreading root system, and by re-seeding. In some areas, Chinese lanterns are considered to be invasive and should be kept in large pots and deadheaded to remove their seed pods.

The fused calyxes that create the "lanterns" have a heart-shaped silhouette and are distributed all over the plant when it's grown under ideal conditions. Given that its leaves and developing fruit are toxic to pets and animals, we recommend growing Chinese lanterns away from pathways and out of arm's reach.

Or, just send the kids and pets to Grandma's house during the growing period.

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9

Sunlight Requirements: Full sun. Chinese lanterns tolerate partial shade the way we tolerate root canals.

Soil Requirements: Loose, compost-amended, well-draining soil with a pH range of 6.2 to 7.4.

Watering Requirements: For best results, keep your Chinese lantern roots evenly and consistently moist, without waterlogging the soil. Physalis alkekengi has a deep taproot and prefers deep irrigation every 5 to 7 days.

Plant Height: 1' to 2'

Plant Width: 1' to 2'

Flowers: Chinese lantern flowers bloom in July. They're white, bell-shaped, and tiny, and are the equivalent to watching local real estate agency slideshows in the theater before a blockbuster movie. They're not attention grabbers, and you just want them to get it over with so the green calyxes begin to grow from their bases, enveloping the plant's developing fruit and achieving their signature orange to red color in fall. At maturity, the husks are about 2" long, and approximately 1.5" at their greatest width.

Foliage: Dark green leaves, about 3" long, resemble a crumpled English ivy.

Pests and Diseases: Chinese lanterns share some of the same enemies and ailments as tomatoes, their nightshade cousins, as follows.

In spite of the above list, don't be freaked out. Chinese lanterns' susceptibility to ailments is on par with most other fruiting plants. Be sure to provide your plants with plenty of air circulation, and be prepared to treat your plants with organic (or inorganic) pesticides and fungicides. Water at ground level, since they don't like getting their leaves and calyxes wet.

Maintenance: Deadhead spent flowers, and pinch the tops of stems to keep the plants from getting "leggy." Mulch around (but not against) the base of plants to prevent the roots from overheating, and to help retain moisture. We recommend an all-purpose or low-nitrogen fertilizer after the bloom period, preferably pelletized, gradual-release products. Be sure to keep pellets about two inches from the plant's stems to prevent scalding.

At the end of the season, cut your Chinese lanterns down to ground level. In the coldest areas, protect the crowns with mulch.

Harvesting Tips: The best time to harvest the plant for its papery husks is as soon as they change from green to orange or red. Snip an entire stem, remove the leaves, and hang it to dry in a warm, airy spot. You can keep Chinese lanterns as fresh cut flowers for up to a week, but the dried husks will last for years.

If you leave the husk on the plant as the fruit inside grows, it might disintegrate down to its veins, leaving a delicate, filigree "cage" around the reddish-colored round "cherry."

Since the fruit lacks much flavor (or if they do, it's said to be bitter), you can harvest a nice little arsenal to throw at children messing around on your lawn. Tactical slingshots enhance this experience.

Growing Chinese Lanterns from Seed

Chinese lanterns are easy to maintain once they've sprouted, but getting them to sprout can be a challenge...but a worthwhile one.

We recommend using a cold stratification process in which the seeds are refrigerated in a damp (not wet) folded paper towel and inserted into a closed plastic baggie for at least four weeks prior to planting. Better yet, if you have space and an understanding spouse or housemate, you can cold stratify planted seeds. Surface-seed them in individual pots or cell packs containing a sterilized seedling mix. Next, wrap the containers in cling wrap, and either stash them in your refrigerator or in a cold, dark room for the stratification period.

Once you've removed your seeds from "cold storage," remove the plastic and place your pots or trays in a warm (70°F to 75°F), bright area to trigger germination, which should occur in 14 to 30 days. If you're past your last frost date, you can direct sow your cold-stratified seeds.

Note: The plastic is necessary to retain humidity in the growing area. If you decide to use a cold frame, adding a container of water or surrounding your seed containers with damp mulch (peat moss, damp newsprint, etc.) can increase germination success.

  • Start Indoors: 4 to 8 weeks prior to last spring frost after a cold stratification period.
  • Start or Transplant Outdoors: After last spring frost
  • Planting Depth: No more than 1/16"; we recommend gently pressing the seeds onto the surface of the soil or substrate.
  • Plant Spacing: 18" to 24"

As with all stubborn germinators, it's important to use fresh seeds packed for the current season. Seeds lose their viability after two to three years, severely reducing your germination rates.

Chinese lantern seeds look a lot like tomato seeds: They're tiny, yellow-green discs that should have a plump center. Discard flat, desiccated seeds, or combine three or more in the same cell or planting spot to up your odds at growing a plant, though it's likely to be less vigorous than a Chinese lantern grown from fresh, healthy seeds.

Crafts and Floral Design with Chinese Lanterns

This is one cut flower species that simply looks best when displayed on its own, or perhaps with a few twigs of curly willow. With the long stems stripped of their leaves, the puffy pods lend themselves to a minimalist yet dramatic aesthetic.

Or string the red pods together and use them as a garland, or hang them on your Christmas tree.

You can get crafty with Chinese lanterns, cutting them along the seams between each calyx and flattening them to create a traditional flower pattern. Spray gold or silver paint on skeletonized husks to help protect them and give them a bling effect.

Chinese Lanterns as a Medicinal Plant

First and foremost, it's important to say once again that the leaves and immature fruit of Physalis alkekengi are toxic to people and to animals. The only parts of the plant that's safe to consume are the mature, round red fruits and the seeds within. You might read about poultices made from the husks and leaves, but we simply won't go there.

Having said that, the medicinal uses for Chinese lantern seeds and fruit include:

  • Treating gout
  • A tonic for anemia
  • An anti-diarrheal (though it can go overboard and cause constipation)
  • Reinvigorating recovering malaria and scarlet fever patients
  • Relieving kidney stones and other urinary tract issues
  • Treatment for epilepsy
  • Encourage labor (but this can also go sideways, so... )

Many of these uses were recorded in the Hellenistic era, and while many proto-physicians left their mark on medicine at that time, modern science has put the kibosh on once-common concoctions. The best way to play it safe is to check with your physician before treating yourself with herbal medicine, especially if parts of a plant are known to be toxic at certain stages of development.

Seed Needs for Successful Gardening

Chinese lantern seeds might be on the cranky side, but as with all plants, you'll have a solid shot at a successful season with our fresh seeds from vigorous, non-GMO parent stock. We only order as much as we can expect to sell in a season, and we keep our product in climate-controlled storage before hand-packaging them just for you.

If you're starting your own ornamental garden, growing Chinese lanterns for nursery sales, or supplying unusual species to the floral market, contact us! We can package custom quantities or personalize seed packets for weddings and other special events. We're a small family business focused on customer service and quality seeds, and we welcome your feedback and product requests. And don't forget to bookmark this blog for helpful tips for your gardening success!


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