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Chinese Lanterns: Rethinking an Unruly Ornamental Plant

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Chinese Lanterns: Rethinking an Unruly Ornamental Plant

November 27, 2017

Chinese lanterns have a mystique that may be lost on the innocent gardener. A couple of seasons after being planted and even forgotten, the large leaves and unremarkable white flowers of this ornamental plant emerge everywhere, even in a lawn. Yet, as fountains of papery calyces turn from green to a deep autumnal orange, the point of persevering with this curious invader becomes clear.

Fiona Haser Bizony of Electric Daisy Flower Farm in Bradford-on-Avon harvested hers in September, then hung them indoors to dry for a couple of months, having first stripped the leaves. What do they go with? Everything.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, for Gardenista.

Chinese lanterns are also known romantically as Amours en Cage (Love in a Cage), because of the fruits that are revealed after the cases have dried out.
Above: Chinese lanterns are also known romantically as Amours en Cage (Love in a Cage), because of the fruits that are revealed after the cases have dried out.

The notoriety of Physalis alkekengi  is somehow compounded by the knowledge that it is a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomato, potato, and highly poisonous belladonna. Clearly, the solution for taming this orange “bladder” (from which its name derives in ancient Greek) is to grow it specifically for harvesting, all by itself. In a wilder garden, Chinese lanterns light up a hedge, when grown in rough grass around the perimeter. Sun preferred.

Hedgerow gatherings, including spindle and hawthorn, joined by magenta chrysanthemums and Chinese lanterns.
Above: Hedgerow gatherings, including spindle and hawthorn, joined by magenta chrysanthemums and Chinese lanterns.

In preparing her lantern harvest for an arrangement, Fiona has looked about her. “This is the result of a lovely bit of foraging in the hedgerows around our new farm for autumnal foliage and berries,” she says. Being a highly innovative flower decorator (this year’s floral artist in residence for the Royal Horticultural Society among other things), Fiona is not short of homegrown flowers to complement Chinese lanterns, taking “autumnal” to a different level.

Hazel, field maple, and old man&#8\2\17;s beard are twisted around a super-size aluminum ring.
Above: Hazel, field maple, and old man’s beard are twisted around a super-size aluminum ring.

Lanterns do not need to be dried; earlier in the season they complement blue salvias, glaucous gray-green eucalyptus, and magenta dahlias (see Mr. October on the Electric Daisy Flower Farm site).

 When the lanterns are left in bright light, they can be drained of their color, which actually adds to this scene of gentle decay.
Above: When the lanterns are left in bright light, they can be drained of their color, which actually adds to this scene of gentle decay.
The other side of the circle.
Above: The other side of the circle.

The hoop shown here is a useful metal frame for floral decoration, standing at a height of 3 feet. “It is decorated according to the season,” says Fiona. “It can be a centerpiece for a wedding or an elaborate entertainment.”

Ghostly pale calyses of Physalis alkekengi.
Above: Ghostly pale calyses of Physalis alkekengi.

Other members of the Physalis family include Cape gooseberry and tomatillo, which becomes clear when the cases go from being papery to becoming completely desiccated, the little (edible) fruit gleaming inside. The paler lanterns shown here have been drained of color through exposure to sun.

Fiona&#8\2\17;s hoop. &#8\2\20;I&#8\2\17;ll be using it again for a Winter Sprite Festival in January, when it will be covered with moss, ivy and hanging snowdrops,&#8\2\2\1; she says.
Above: Fiona’s hoop. “I’ll be using it again for a Winter Sprite Festival in January, when it will be covered with moss, ivy and hanging snowdrops,” she says.

See more of Fiona’s work in Studio Visit: Electric Daisy Flower Farm.

N.B.: We’ve been rethinking our assumptions about under-appreciated flowers, including Zinnias (not just a farm stand flower) and Poinsettias (they’re not just for Christmas).

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