Your Guide to Growing Chinese Lantern Plants at Home
Plus, learn how to harvest the unique variety for your fall arrangements.
Physalis alkekengi, also known as the Chinese lantern plant, is a unique herbaceous perennial variety to grow in your garden. It bursts into a bright red hue as it matures, and culminates in a lantern shape with a paper-like texture once it's ready to harvest. Ahead, we asked an expert to share their best tips for growing, caring for, and harvesting your own Chinese lantern plants.
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How to Grow Chinese Lantern Plant
"Chinese lantern plants grow well in most average garden soils as long as they are well-draining and not overly moist," says Justine Kandra, an indoor horticulturist at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Kemper Center for Home Gardening. Per the Missouri Botanical Garden, they are most commonly cultivated as perennials (they die after the first frost, but the roots survive and grow back come spring) in USDA zones six through nine, though you can cultivate Chinese lantern plants as annuals in colder climates. If you're taking this approach, she says to start the seeding process indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost, at the dawn of spring. You'll see small white flowers in summer, but the fun truly begins in the fall, after the full growing season—that's when the species' signature red lantern buds appear.
How to Care for Chinese Lantern Plant
Chinese lanterns grow best in full sunlight and in containers, Kandra says—especially because the plant spreads aggressively in gardens, extending its roots far and wide. Once the plant begins to mature, a round fruiting structure will appear within a papery husk, she adds. The husk will then develop from green to yellow to orange, and lastly, to red once the fall season rolls around.
Common Uses After Harvesting Chinese Lantern Plant
When the husk is mature, Chinese lanterns are typically harvested for fresh or dried floral arrangements. "Florists often remove the leaves to showcase the colorful fruiting structures," the garden expert shares. "Alternatively, they can be left on the plant into the winter at which point the papery outer covering will begin to degrade—revealing the bright orange fruit inside." It's important to note that, similarly to other nightshade plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, almost every part of this plant is poisonous except for the ripe fruit—which is edible, but known to be flavorless. These plants were also once used to heal general ailments, like fevers, but are no longer used in medicine; gardeners should not consume the fruit until the Chinese lanterns are mature.