Monday, 17 October 2016

Chinese Lanterns

It is in the autumn that Chinese Lanterns are looking their best. Of course I am talking about the plant Physalis alkekengi, referred to in some works as P. franchetii.

Physalis alkekengi growing in Flore, Northants.
17 October, 2016
Attractive it undeniably is, but plant it at your peril. Somehow a fragment of the rhizome - the creeping underground stem - found its way into a border at our last property and before I realised what had happened the plant was popping up everywhere as these rhizomes snaked their way between abetting neighbours. It took me a long time and a rich variety of expletives to (hopefully) eradicate it.

The name Physalis comes from the Greek phusa meaning a bladder, and if this papery 'lantern', actually the inflated calyx, is split open the spherical orange fruit - a true berry - is revealed. The flowers are relatively insignificant in terms of garden value.

In appearance it very much resembles the Cape Gooseberry, Physalis peruviana, popular in some countries for pies and jam-making. From time to time I have found this latter plant embellishing a dessert in restaurants, and very pleasant it is too.

However it is as well that I have never been served Chinese Lantern fruits for despite its close relationship to Cape Gooseberry it is distinctly toxic, especially when under-ripe, and could be fatal if ingested in large quantities. This is not a great surprise when one learns that the plant is a member of the Nightshade family, Solanaceae, and is therefore akin to Deadly Nightshade (Atropa), Henbane (Hyoscyamus species), Tobacco and Thorn Apples (Datura species). In general members of this family form a nasty gang even though potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines are also in the Solanaceae.

The plant has become naturalised here and there in the U.K., probably as a throw-out from gardens. It is fairly common in south and central Europe and grows right across southern Asia as far as China and Japan.

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