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Chinese Lanterns- Pumpkins on Stems

Anne Jaeger

Step inside Glenn Cavender’s barn. The Chinese Lanterns will light your way. Nothing illuminates fall as elegantly as Chinese Lanterns. That’s because this unique looking plant doesn’t make flowers, it makes masses of small vibrant orange air balloons which dangle like tea lights on wiry stems. The profusion of orange is simple beauty. It just goes to show you what a good decorator Mother Nature is. Maybe you’ve seen these odd papery seedpods (called calyces or bells) in fall floral arrangements or spied them at the craft store and wondered where they come from. Well, they’re grown right in our own backyards. At harvest time millions of them hang from the rafters at Glenn Cavenders barn outside Canby. Fall in love with them and you can grow them yourself. All it takes is some seeds or a root from a neighbor and you’re off and running. Here’s the strange thing about this plant; florist pay dearly for it. That’s because three growers control 90% of the market according to Cavender. So, back East in New York City, for instance, you’ll pay 4 dollars for just one stem! Here in the great Northwest, Haggen Foods Floral department is selling 10 stems for $12 dollars. Cavender grows more than an acre of them. On a good year he’ll make 50 grand. On a bad year he falls back on is day job. Now before you go planting a whole field full, let me tell you a few things about this specialized cottage industry. It’s pretty darn hard to break into. It’s tough to get enough rootstock to make a living. You see, like the family jewels, the plants are passed down from generation to generation. So you can imagine how happy Glenn was to get 40 or 50 garbage bags FULL of roots from his Dad, well known plants man, Richard “Red” Cavender of Sherwood. “So that really helped, you know. You just don’t find people who want to give or sell the rootstock because they don’t want everyone else growing them. They want to control the price, keep the price up. It’s a real niche market.” I’ll say! Now this is a niche we can appreciate. In fact, we need to grow some in our gardens! So I’ll tell you how to do that in a second after explaining one important caveat. Turns out, there’s quite a dichotomy about the Chinese lantern plant. Yes, there’s a raging market for the limited floral supply and yet the darn things are considered a “weed”. The seeds are easy to find but the rootstock is not. A packet of 175 seeds goes for less than $3-dollars from Burpee and Thompson Morgan Seed Companies. And let me tell you that will go a long way. The experts often bad mouth Chinese Lanterns for spreading quickly once established because the root system is similar to ivy. Any runners left will produce plants. But, Glenn the grower says, there’s no reason for panic. In his experience the comparison to ivy isn’t fair. Unlike ivy, Chinese Lantern roots are no sweat to pull up and they hate Round-up weed killer. So if they’re that easy to get rid of, what’s the worst that can happen? You build up enough rootstock to make money on the side? If you’re worried about them taking over, just try a couple of seeds to start with and see what you think. You’ll find the Chinese lantern plant easy to start from seed and to take care of. Merely toss the seeds on some sandy loam in spring. (Don’t even “plant” the seeds, they need light to germinate.) Then, cut the stems near the base of the plant in early September when the bells start to show color. Hang them upside down in a dry place with good air circulation for about 10 days.
Leave the pumpkins for the kids, this plant will fascinate your imagination. You’ll find there’s something mysterious about the “Chinese Lantern” hanging so tastefully like natures origami in your garden or your living room.

——————-Chinese Lantern ———————-
Common Name: Chinese Lantern, Japanese Lantern.
Cultivar Name: Physalis alkekengi franchettii.
Size: 2 feet Tall, 2 foot Wide.
***Can spread once established (3 yrs +).
Needs: Full sun. Good drainage.
Removal: Dig or hand pull roots.