THE Chinese lantern is a very pretty plant for autumn, and it is unusual because the fruit rather than the flower is the provider of colour. The 'lanterns' are remarkable papery structures enclosing the fruit, bright orange-red and very eye-catching at this time, ideal for Halloween.
The fruit, about the size and shape of a small cherry tomato, but not edible, is completely hidden. Chinese lantern and tomato are closely related, both being members of the potato family. Small white flowers, very like potato flowers, open along the stems in summer and are pollinated. These are too small to be of any decorative value.
The lantern is formed from the green calyx behind each flower, the calyx extending after the flower is pollinated. At this stage the plant is very plain in appearance, with green leaves covering the stems, and it is hardly noticeable in a border.
In early autumn, having grown to full size, the papery husks begin to change colour, eventually turning to bright orange-red. The colour lasts for many weeks, even after the leaves fall off. Place this plant near some shrubs or trees that show good autumn colour, such as Chinese spindle or Juneberry, or withered grasses, and the effects can be superb. The stems can be cut and dried for use indoors when the lanterns show colour.
The Chinese lantern plant, or physalis, is closely related to the Cape gooseberry, which has become popular as a garnish for desserts, each little yellow-orange fruit tucked away in a beige papery globe. It is called Cape gooseberry because it was once widely grown in South Africa, but it is originally from South America. Contained in their papery husks, the fruit lasts for months in a cool place.
Chinese lantern is hardy, originally coming from southern Europe, and across Asia to Japan. It is perennial and comes up each year, making slender shoots to about 60cm. These wither away in winter after the lanterns eventually disintegrate. It is easily grown in any well-drained ordinary soil in reasonably good light. The plant tends to spread but it is easily controlled.
The Cape gooseberry needs more heat to grow well and is successful in a tunnel or glasshouse. The related tomatillo, with fruits up to 6cm across, often bursts through the papery husk. This fruit, from Mexico, can be used to make jams and chutneys. It can succeed in a warm spot outdoors but does better in a greenhouse.