Everything You Need to Know about the Chinese Lantern Plant

The Chinese lantern plant is usually found in regions covering Southern Europe, Northeast and Southeast Asia, and is a popular ornamental plant which is helped because it can be cultivated in more temperate climates.

Alternatively named the strawberry tomato, or the Japanese lantern, the winter cherry, or the bladder cherry, the Chinese Lantern is capable of holding out at temperatures below minus twenty-degrees centigrade.

According to Gardening Know How’s article about how to care for the Chinese lantern plant, it is a member of the Nightshade family of plants, and it also has a resemblance to husk tomato plants.

In the same article, it is said the most distinctive thing about the plant is the seed pod which grows on it. The seed pod is quite large and is a red-orange in color and due to its shape and appearance which is akin to a Chinese lantern and has a rather papery touch.

Fruit Inside the Plant

There is a fruit inside the seed pod which is edible, even though the taste isn’t particularly nice. Since the Chinese Lantern plant is a member of the Nightshade family, growing it is straightforward enough, though care should be taken since because the Chinese Lantern plant is a member of the Nightshade family, certain parts of it – the leaves, unripened fruit – are poisonous.

However, the pods are mostly used in dried flower arrangements. People simply cut the stems and the leaves are then removed while leaving the pods alone while keeping the whole thing standing upright in an airy place which is dry. The pods retain their color throughout the process, and they stay like that for years while the pods themselves don’t deteriorate.

Some people, wanting interesting shapes to come out of the drying process, usually lightly cut along the pods’ veins, making them curl into different shapes while they dry out.

The seeds of the Chinese Lantern plant are used in the Japanese Bon festival, a tradition where the seeds are used as offerings to guide the souls of the dead.

Facts about the Chinese Lantern Plant

  1. The flowers are white, with five lobes ten or fifteen millimeters across, while the plant itself grows over sixty centimeters in height, and its leaves will be between six and twelve centimeters in length, by four and nine centimeters in width.
  2. According to the Wikipedia article on the Chinese Lantern plant has been given the Award of Garden Merit by the United Kingdom’s Royal Horticultural Society.
  3. The plant’s seed pods have been found across the ages in fossils – the Pleistocene of Germany and sediments from the same age have contained fossilized seeds in East Anglia, the Miocene of Siberia, and the Pliocene of Europe.
  4. They are perennial plants.
  5. The fruit is similar to a berry. The Chinese have used the fruit in their medicines for centuries, and many people have even baked the fruit of the Lantern plant in pies, according to Gardening Channel’s article on the plant.
  6. The Chinese Lantern plant is a cousin to the Goji berry plant, which contrasts because the berries are not full of poison, though their mode of growth is virtually identical to the Chinese Lantern plant.
  7. Other varieties of the Chinese Lantern plant, according to the Spruce article on them, include the Tomatillo, or ‘little tomato’ in Spanish, with edible fruit. The Cape Gooseberry is a native of South America which produces an edible fruit when its ripened. However there are two more varieties which are toxic – the Horse nettle produces poisonous yellow fruits and is a noxious weed. The Bittersweet Nightshade is a common weed which grows toxic berries which come in different colors on the same plant because they don’t mature at once.

To grow or not to grow

The Spruce article on the Chinese Lantern plant comes with a warning about the plant for some types of gardeners and says it might not be a good fit for all gardeners. While the Chinese Lantern plant is beautiful and can make a great addition to a dried flower arrangement, one thing is clear.

The plant is highly invasive, and they spread everywhere rhizomes; a type of stem which runs horizontally under the ground, creating new roots as they go, according to the adjoining article which explains what they are, which also describes the similarities between invasive plants and aggressive types of weeds.

Some plants which reproduce in this manner tend to be highly aggressive, such as the Japanese knotweed, poison ivy, and the stinging nettle, though the more aggressive types – including the Chinese Lantern plant – include the Plume Poppy, the Virginia Creeper, and the Tansy.

Jack O’Lantern

Initially, a green plant in color, the Lantern plant’s pods mature right at the end of the fall, and the color changes during autumn which makes them appear as Jack O’Lanterns, as the article written about them in Spruce describes.

The pods become a brown-yellow in color, similar to other plant leaves though the shape and the papery feel of the seed pod make it resemble a pumpkin. There are two ways to grow the Chinese Lantern plant – from seed and by cutting.

How to Grow the Chinese Lantern Plant from seed

Despite their invasive nature, Chinese Lantern plants can still brighten up the garden, and when their seed pods ripen they can be decorative with their red-orange hues. According to GardenNerdy’s article on how to grow the Chinese Lantern plant, growing them is easy enough since they can be grown from seeds. Just remember – these plants are invasive.

One way of stopping it becoming too invasive would be to grow them in pots. It’s also possible for you to grow the plant in trays kept indoors before planting them just after the frost. Young plants are vulnerable to chillier temperatures, it is only when they’ve become fully established in the garden they are more resilient.

The plants can grow in places of partial shade, but as long as they have enough sunlight reaching them then they will grow quite healthily, in a soil which is moist and rich, but not too soggy.

Late spring is the best time for the Chinese Lantern plant to be grown in because it will be just after the frost. It’s recommended they’re grown indoors because they have a long period of germination according to The Gardener’s Network on growing the lantern plant.

They should be grown during a period of four to six weeks, but when they’ve been planted they should be given a general purpose fertilizer on a monthly basis, and a layer of mulch should be put down to keep the soil rich and moist while keeping out the weeds at the same time.

Distance Apart

The Chinese Lantern plant should ideally be grown two feet apart from one another or from other plants nearby so they can spread their roots, and if needed they should be protected from the full glare of the sun during the afternoon, according to The Garden Helper. Once they’re fully planted the plants will survive on their own, which makes them great for first-time gardeners though they should never be eaten except for the ripe fruit they produce.

The best soil conditions for the Chinese Lantern plant, according to My Folia, should be fairly sandy, weakly acidic and weakly alkaline. Once they’ve been planted into the ground, it should only take a couple of weeks before the plants are fully established in the soil.

How to Grow from Cuttings

This article from Garden Focused says the best cuttings come from the roots, but a sprig which is healthy in appearance and has green growth around it will do just as well. Chinese lantern plants have ‘runners’ rather than roots, and if you see one with greenery growing from it, just cut it off – just an inch should do.

Once you have the cutting, plant it in multi-purpose soil filled in a container. Again, make sure the soil is moist but not soggy, and keep the container moist throughout the growing period – it might also be a good idea if the container is sprinkled occasionally with a fertilizer – the best would be blood, fish and bone.

How to care for the Chinese Lantern plant

According to Love to Know, it should be watered on a weekly basis before it has become fully established in the soil. Care should be taken – if watered too much then the plant will die from root rot.

The fertilizer should be 10-10-10 general purpose, at least once during the springtime and once during the summer time. Once the plant has been established in the soil, it will be fairly resilient and will need little care, though if they become too big or if they spread too far then they should be cut back.

Like most plants, the Chinese Lantern plant is vulnerable to insects such as cucumber beetles, flea beetles, and lastly false potato beetles. Deer will not touch them. The plants do grow quite rapidly once they’ve become established in the garden and they tend to ignore any pests which attack them.

Slugs and caterpillars can be a problem for the plant, the slugs will just hide underneath the dense foliage of the plant. The only way to deal with them are the conventional methods of dealing with slugs, like pellets.

Watch out for Black Rot

Black rot is also a danger. According to the Burpee article on Chinese Lantern plants, Black Rot is a bacterial disease that can harm the plant. It thrives in humid conditions and it attacks the leaves of the Lantern plant. Its symptoms don’t seem to be too harmful – yellow/orange lesions on the edge before the leaves fall off.

It’s also possible for the seeds to die even if they appear healthy. This is because of Damping-off, a fungal problem when there is too much moisture in the soil and the temperature is above sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, though it could also mean there is too much nitrogen present in the fertilizer. 

The seedlings need to be kept moist, but not too moist and not too fertilized so then this problem will not happen to the seedlings you’re trying to cultivate, and it’s also advised the seedlings need plenty of room and that they need air circulating so they can grow.

Uses for the Lantern plant

Aside from its use in Japanese tradition and its use on Halloween when people can use its seed pods for Jack O’Lanterns, the Chinese Lantern plant is used mostly to attract butterflies into the garden.

It can also be used as a border plant and for edging around the garden despite it being quite invasive in gardens in the United Kingdom and in the United States, which is one of the reasons some gardeners grow it in containers. While the fruit is edible and can have a bad taste, there are some moments where the fruit is good, like when the fruit is dried or cut.

It can also be useful as herbal medicine plant though not many people use it much anymore. It can induce abortion in pregnant women. The fruit can be made to create a remedy for disorders in the kidney or the bladder. During Halloween, the plant fruit is its peak, and during Halloween, the plant is a decoration due to the orange color of the pod.

Pruning time

The Chinese Lantern plant is extremely hardy and resilient despite being vulnerable to certain insects and diseases. The best thing to do when you plan on growing one is to plant it in a hole with plenty of space all around to limit the chances of disease. Cut back the leaves of the plant, but don’t put the foliage in a compost bin.

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