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The Lantern Plant (Physalis franchetii) July, 2005
by Fred Davis, Hill Gardens, Palermo, Maine
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    Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! How quickly colors in the garden change and how very difficult it sometimes is for a gardener to admit a mistake. There was a time when at least one specimen of Physalis franchetii was growing somewhere in our gardens. We enjoyed the creamy-white flowers (even though they're not really significant) during summer and the strikingly bright red-orange 1-1/2 inch "lanterns" which enclose its fruit.

    Before moving to Palermo in 1987 and building this current garden, we had soil that was only slightly better than average and our lantern plants were fairly well disciplined. Yes, they multiplied as expected, but usually stayed in the general area. In this new Palermo garden, however, it was a different story! Soil in our new garden is very high in organic matter—something in the range of 60% or 75%. (Average home garden soil — especially if that "soil" was recently hauled in by a contractor — would test out to between 0% and perhaps 5% or 6% organic matter content. Most “improved” garden soil contains 15% or 20%. Peat moss? Adding it to poor soil would, indeed, raise "organic" matter some...but little else. See peat moss note below.)

   Sakes alive! Physalis Lanterns do like rich soil! When I planted one in a newly improved section, I had no idea it would travel underground 15-feet, spreading in all directions along moist ledge like the spokes of a wagon wheel! Even out into compacted driveway gravel — over a single winter! A single, deeply-frozen Zone 4B winter! A young garden helper and I spent the better part of two days digging the invasive rascal out and I'm still not certain we got it all. Next time it goes in a five-gallon pail. . .that might keep it under control for a few years. A bit more about bucket-confinement a little later. 

   Physalis is a native resident of a large area from southeastern Europe to Japan. How it came to this continent escapes me...but it's certainly here! It boasts a number of interesting common names: Winter Cherry, Japanese Lantern, Strawberry Tomato, Bladder Cherry, Strawberry Ground Cherry and a few others. A perennial, P. franchetii grows to about 24-inches in height and can be either upright or decumbent (flops on the ground).

    Most gardeners give little thought to the largely-unimpressive flowers. Late summer is when the real show begins. As the small, brightly-colored, tomato-shaped (edible, according to "the book" though packed nearly solid with seeds) fruit matures inside, so also does its enclosure: an inflated, intensely red-orange calyx that looks and feels for all the world like a little paper lantern.  

    These showy ornaments, borne a few inches apart along stems, are prized by some dried-flower arrangers and add much-needed color and cheer to the otherwise dreary months of winter. Cut just as full color is achieved, remove all leaves and insert upright in a pail or box of dry sand.  Complete drying takes upwards of three weeks, after which they can be handled and arranged with other dried prizes salvaged from the garden, field or roadside. They are somewhat fragile but great fun for the youngsters, so cut and dry a few extras for little hands to explore.

    Lanterns prefer to be planted in full sun in average garden soil.  The deeper the soil is prepared, the deeper the long, tentacle-like "runners" will go.  They can be contained — with marginal success — by planting in a deep pail or bucket with a small hole in the bottom-center.  It'd be a good idea to hot-glue a layer of plastic window screen into the bottom before filling with soil prior burying pail and all to its rim.  The runner-roots will try to find a way out but will stupidly (for a while) run in circles around the pail's lower perimeter without thinking to try the hole at the center.  It might work.  

    Whatever you do, don't make the same mistake I did and plant it in over half compost and feed it with 10-10-10!  Two days in the hot sun, surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, and covered from head-to-toe with dirt while caught in a tangle of lantern roots is not  the way to enjoy your late-summer garden!

(Note about peat moss: Far too many people have been led to believe that the words "peat moss" are synonymous with "fertilizer" or "compost" when added to the soil. Here's a surprise for you: nutritionally and biologically, peat moss is utterly dead...virtually no nutrition...certainly no recognizable life like beneficial bacteria, useful fungi—nothing. Yes, it's great for breaking up clay. Yes, if you have nothing else [compost, shredded leaves, or composted/sterilized manure], peat moss is slightly better than nothing for "improving" clay-ish soil. But life and nutrition? Not in this lifetime!)


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