Get down and dirty in the garden
Last spring, I introduced and encouraged you to try planting chinese lantern plants (Physalis alkekengi). If you didn’t try it then, try it now!
These plants will be difficult to find already started, but the good news is that they do well from seed. Now that spring is here (FINALLY), this is your best opportunity to find seed packets from which to start in any local nursery or superstore.
After my first blog, which you can read here, I received dozens of questions from interested readers. I think it best to address those questions in three simple, question-answer formats: Growing. Cooking. Healing.
The Chinese lantern plant, also known as the winter or bladder cherry,
bears a small fruit in the tomatillo family with a sweet flavor.
Photo by Ivaschenko Roman
Q. Is the chinese lantern plant an herb?
A. Chinese lantern plant is herbaceous, which means that parts of the plants are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. It is a member of the family Solanaceae, most commonly known as nightshade plants. Nightshade plants also include potatoes, tomatoes and petunias, and share the genus Physalis with cape gooseberries (a very close relative).
Q. Why Physalis?
A. Physalis is a perennial plant grown easily from inexpensive seeds. It doesn’t need a lot of attention, grows quickly, attracts few pests and enjoys a variety of uses. It’s a plant of all trades.
Q. Is the chinese lantern plant difficult to grow?
A. No. In fact, one of its flaws may be that it’s too easy to grow. The chinese lantern plant, like mint, has rhizomes that spread horizontally, meaning that even if you chop down the plant without dropping any seeds, it might pop up in another part of your garden. That’s why Physalis would do best planted in either a contained garden, or in a pot. Or even a pot that is buried in the ground, perhaps disguised with some cedar mulch.
Q. When is the best time to plant the chinese lantern plant?
A. For most zones, the plant does best if sown directly into the ground in late spring. No need to start it indoors ahead of time; just make sure that you’re outside of frost-temperatures.
Q. Where and how should I plant the chinese lantern plant?
A. Physalis can be planted in either full sun or partial shade. It is best to plant them on the sunniest side of your home but in an area that isn’t exposed to full sun for more than 8 hours a day.
Because Physalis can become invasive, it is best to plant it in a pot or in a garden that’s contained. I recommend buying a large, plain terra cotta pot to place with your other herbs and flowers to give the landscaping texture, height and a punch of color.
Q. Where can I purchase the seeds for the chinese lantern plant?
A. Typically, you buy seeds at a nursery or even in the flower section of a superstore. But if you can’t find them, buy them online at BackyardGardener.com.
Q. Can I grow the chinese lantern plant in my apartment?
A. Few plants do best indoors. In fact, even the peace lily, a plant known to do well inside, won’t bloom unless it gets adequate light, preferably in a sunny room. So, if you have a window or a balcony that faces south and gets a lot of sun, you may be able to pull it off.
Q. Why are south-facing gardens best?
A. The sun doesn’t technically rise in true east and set in true west. In the Northern Hemisphere growing season, the sun spends most of its time in the southern part of the sky, so your house will cast its shadow on the northern part of your property. This is because the sun as we see it, is below the zenith. Many outdoor ornamental plants do well in the sun on the east or west side of your house because it isn’t as hot. Window plants, or plants on a balcony, will likely receive less or diluted light, which is why south-facing exposure is best.
Food plants such as vegetables will do best in south-facing, full sun gardens.
Courtesy Flickr/Photo by tanakawho
Q. What is a good companion plant for chinese lantern plants?
A. In the comments section of my blog last year, reader Rainbowstar Linares suggested pairing the plant with Lily of the Valley or bee balm. Her assertion is that because both plants bloom at different times, they encourage mutual growth and bloom.
Q. Do chinese lantern plants attract pests?
A. Not typically, but occasionally lanterns can become infested with flea-beetles, a common pest for many vegetables. They damage the plants with something called “shotholing”, literally chewed holes in vegetable leaves. Often these pests are more of a nuisance than a veritable threat, and generally you can eliminate them with common insecticides. But if you are planning to use your lanterns as a food source, you should talk with your nursery about more organic options for your region.
Q. How do I use the chinese lantern plant ornamentally?
A. Physalis can be used in an arrangement that will last about a week, or it can be dried and used for a dash of color with your fall decorations. To dry Physalis, harvest the calcye or “latern” immediately after it turns red, then hang it upside down in a dark room for several weeks.
Check back soon to learn about some of the culinary and medicinal uses of this cherished species, the Chinese lantern plant. And if you've got a gardening question, I've got your answer! Shoot an email over to email@example.com.