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Extension > Garden > Yard and Garden > Vegetables > Physalis

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Chinese Lantern
P. alkekengi
The Annual Garden

Physalis: Chinese-lantern, tomatillo, and husk-tomato or ground-cherry

Physalis is a genus or group of herbaceous plants belonging to the solanaceae (nightshade) family, related to tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Some are grown in the garden for their large, brightly colored, inflated papery husks and others for their small, edible fruits. Most are native to warm climates and are sensitive to cold temperatures, so start plants early indoors.

Chinese lantern, Physalis alkekengi, grows to two feet tall and bears small, white flowers followed by large, balloon-like husks. Inside each 2-inch long husk is a small edible but tasteless scarlet fruit. The Chinese lantern plant is valued for its inflated orange-red seed coverings which resemble miniature Chinese lanterns. For winter bouquets, cut the stems in fall just as the lanterns turn color, remove the leaves and hang them, right side up, to dry in a shady, airy place.

P. ixocarpa
An Illustrated Flora of the Northern U.S. and Canada

Propagation from seed is easy, and the plants often self-sow in the garden. Set Chinese lantern plants from 2 to 3 feet apart as they tend to spread and overwhelm other garden plants. Physalis alkekengi has several distinct varieties. The one known as 'Franchetii' is most robust, while 'Bunyardii' is compact and free-flowering. 'Major' has exceptionally large lanterns while those of the form called 'Monstrosa' are curiously contorted. The variety 'Nana' grows only 6 inches high.

Tomatillo, Physalis ixocarpa, is an annual from Mexico, that grows 3 to 4 feet tall. Its flowers are bright yellow with five very dark brown spots inside the throat. Its purplish, very sticky fruits are enclosed in tight-fitting, purple-veined, light-brown papery husks. The fruit is 1 to 2 inches in diameter, growing to about the size and shape of a walnut.

The tomatillo has a flavor that is tart, tasting something like green apples, rather than sweet like its close relative the husk-tomato (or ground-cherry).

Tomatillos are used many ways in Mexican cooking. Raw or cooked, they give sauces a rich, distinctive flavor. They are used fresh in salads, tacos, and sandwiches.

For the highest quality fruit and best flavor, pick tomatillos while they are still deep green and when the husk has changed from green to tan. If left on the vine to ripen, tomatillos will turn either yellow or purple, and develop a sweet, bland taste. They may be used in pies and preserves when ripe, but their blandness makes them less well-suited to that purpose than ground-cherries.

Tomatillos keep well for months in a cool, well-ventilated place. Spread them out one layer deep, still in their husks. The fruit will spoil rapidly if placed in an airtight plastic bag for storage. Tomatillo fruits may also be canned.

Husk-tomato or ground-cherry
P. pruinosa
An Illustrated Flora of the Northern U.S. and Canada

Husk-tomato, also called ground-cherry, Physalis pruinosa, grows from 18 to 30 inches tall with oval or heart-shaped fuzzy leaves. The buff-yellow flowers are marked on the inside with five brown spots. Its greenish-yellow fruit, about the size of a cherry tomato, is produced inside a papery husk. When ripe, the husk turns brown and the fruit drops from the plant. If left in the husk, it will keep for several weeks.

The husk-tomato has a pleasing and distinctive flavor and is used raw in cocktails or as dessert. Its most common use is in jam but it's also frequently used in pies or as a cooked sauce on cakes and puddings.

Plant growth and general culture of Physalis species is much the same as tomatoes. Start the seeds indoors or in a greenhouse then transplant 6-week-old seedlings to the garden a week or two after the average date of the last spring freeze. Like tomatoes, they respond well in ordinary well-drained garden soil in a sunny location. Set plants 2 to 3 feet apart. They have few insects or diseases and no physiological peculiarities. The fruits begin to mature from mid to late summer, about the same time as late tomatoes.


Reviewed 1998

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