Like tiny, orange paper lanterns strung together along a stem, the hanging fruit of the Physalis alkekeng, (called Chinese lanterns, winter cherry or Japanese lantern) will light up a bouquet of autumn flowers. These uniquely shaped plants offer a wonderful harvest look to any arrangement and are fun to tuck into a vase or add along the edges of a table or wreath. In great fall colors like burnt umber and pumpkin orange, these long-lasting stems are the perfect choice for an autumnal bouquet.
Native to parts of southern Europe, Asia and the islands of Japan, the Chinese lantern is a perennial plant that grows 1-2 feet tall. Small, white flowers, when fertilized, develop into a tomatillo-like fruit. The papery covering hides a small firm fruit and is shaped like a hot air balloon. This deepens in color to a rich orange over time and each stem can have 3-6 fruits ripen at a time. As the plant ages and matures, the paper covering becomes delicate and can slowly dry in unique, lace-like patterns. Far from looking faded the way traditional blooms will after a time, these plants add a certain seasonality and can be pulled from the old arrangement and placed in a vase on their own as the evenings lengthen and the nights grow cooler.
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Edible, as well as medicinal, the fruit of the Chinese lantern has been cultivated for many years around the globe and used as a sedative, diuretic and as an antiseptic. In Japan, the seeds of this plant are used as an offering during the Bon Festival, to help guide the souls of the departed. It is a very popular ornamental plant there in both gardens as well as in the traditional flower arranging art of Ikebana, which employs a minimalist approach to floral design. Clean lines, specific shapes and carefully chosen and placed blooms create the effects of this floral art, which has become a part of the culture of Japan and is believed to have origins dating back to the 6th century. The use of the Chinese lanterns in these traditional arrangements can add a specific “air” quality or be use to trail gently down the side of a container.
Chinese lanterns are available at your local florist through the middle of summer well into the first frosts of winter. Like leaves turning colors, choose stems that have some orange and some fruits that are still a bit green to experience the cycles of nature from the comfort of your kitchen table.