Physalis alkekengi: 4 facts about this decorative fall plant

Carol Pope

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Physalis alkekengi (Photo by Carol Pope)
Physalis alkekengi (Photo by Carol Pope)
Physalis alkekengi (Photo by Carol Pope)

To get into the Halloween spirit, pick up a decorative pot of Physalis alkekengi, a.k.a. liv’n lantern, Chinese lantern plant, strawberry ground cherry or bladder cherry, from your local nursery. Similar to tomatillos, this plant produces showy paper-like husks that wrap around ripening fruit – and in the case of P. alkekengi, they turn from green to bright orange, just in time for Halloween.

Hardy to Zone 3, this perennial reaches two feet (60 cm) in height and blooms in midsummer. Direct sow P. alkekengi in June or start it indoors along with your tomato seedlings. It likes well-drained soil and a partially sunny location. In fact, sometimes it likes these conditions a bit too much, and can spread aggressively via underground rhizomes and self-seeding. Keep an eye on it, or grow it in a pot.

To dry the husks for fall and winter decoration, harvest the branches as soon as the lanterns turn bright orange and hang them upside down in a cool, dry indoor space.

If you’re wondering whether the fruit is edible, here’s what you need to know:

  1. When the husk fades from bright red/orange to a transparent beige/white, the ripe-red fruit (like a large berry) of alkekengi is ready to eat.
  2. Extremely rich in vitamin C and some antioxidants, ripe fruit is thought to have value as an anti-inflammatory.
  3. You can use the very tart ripe berries to make a substitute “cranberry sauce”: barely simmer a cup (235 mL) of the fruit for about 30 minutes with enough water to prevent sticking and then gradually add sugar by the teaspoonful to achieve your desired sweetness. Rich in pectin, these berries are also useful added to preserves and pie fillings.
  4. Other than the ripe fruit, however, all parts of this member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family – including unripe fruit and the husk (calyx) – are poisonous (similar to green potatoes and tomato leaves) and can even be fatal. And it’s wise to avoid eating too much of even the mature fruit at one time, as it’s a strong diuretic and has laxative qualities. Pregnant women or anyone with compromised health should avoid eating the fruit of P. alkekengi altogether.
  5. Pumpkins ready for the porch. (Photo by Carol Pope)
    Pumpkins ready for the porch. (Photo by Carol Pope)

 Pumpkin fast facts

While shopping for some Halloween porch pick-me-ups at the Cannor Nursery/Wildwood Outdoor Living Centre in Victoria, garden expert Matt Hall shared these fun pumpkin fast facts with me:

  • Pumpkins were once recommended for removing freckles and curing snake bits.
  • Pumpkins are 90 per cent water.
  • Pumpkin flowers are edible.
  • Pumpkins are fruit.
  • Carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween dates back hundreds of years ago to Ireland. Back then, however, jack-o’-lanterns were typically made out of turnips or potatoes. It wasn’t until Irish immigrants arrived in North America and discovered the pumpkin that a new Halloween ritual was born.
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