Sandy’s Garden ... Physalis

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

A recent speaker at the Probus Club of Polmont had spent many years on the staff of Jenner’s department store in Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Among many fascinating glimpses of the history of, the culture of and comical interludes in the store, she told of Jenner’s sales assistants being instructed never to ask a potential customer, “Can I help you?” This seemingly-natural approach allows the customer to answer, “No, thank you,” thus ending any hope of continuing the conversation with the ultimate aim of achieving a sale. I realised, when I was browsing in a local garden centre that, in my situation, it was I, the potential customer, who had to be very careful with my language or, more specifically, with my pronunciation and enunciation. There is a dangerous chance of being misheard when one enquires of a staff member in a garden centre, “Do you have physalis?” Yes, do be careful with the pronunciation!

Wikipedia describes physalis in these words: ‘Physalis is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family, which grow in warm temperate and subtropical regions of the world. Most of the species, of which there may be 75–90, are indigenous to the Americas. Cultivated species and weedy annuals have been introduced worldwide. A notable feature is the formation of a large papery husk derived from the calyx, which partly or fully encloses the fruit. The fruit is small and orange, similar in size, shape and structure to a small tomato.’ We most often encounter a member of the Physalis family in the fruit and vegetable area of a supermarket, for Physalis peruviana … which was cultivated in South America by the Inca Indians … was brought to England in the late 18th century and introduced into South Africa in the Cape of Good Hope shortly after, giving rise to its common name of Cape gooseberry; and it is this member of the family with which you, gentle reader, are most probably familiar.

But rest assured that I had no intention of attempting to grow a South American fruit-producing plant which loves South Africa in Polmont! Nor would I expect to find examples of this member of the Physalis family in a local garden centre. It was an example of Physalis alkekengi which I sought, a plant which surrounds its fruit with bright orangey-red papery coverings resembling paper lanterns, explaining its common name Chinese lantern. This particular member of the Physalis family comes originally from South Asia and is a perennial, meaning that it should live for quite a number of years. It is grown in the United Kingdom as a purely ornamental plant and has been given the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS), indicating that this is a plant which the RHS expects to prosper in our climate. Since it thrives in most types of soil … from alkaline through neutral to acid … and is very hardy, being able to survive temperature as low as −20 °C … which is below the temperature in a domestic deep freeze cabinet … I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t do well. It is a small shrub which I expect to grow to a height of no more than 60cm, say 2 feet in old money. It prefers to live in full sunshine and should carry nodding white flowers in summer before these develop into light green fruit cases which mature into the fascinating, attractive and distinctive orange ‘lanterns’. These lanterns will, with any luck, survive for many months, adding a splash of much-needed colour to the mid-winter garden. They do, of course, contain seeds, but eating these seeds is not recommended. Only after I had planted my Physalis alkekengi did I learn that it can be invasive, with its wide-spreading root system sending up new shoots some distance from where it was originally rooted. And I shall not be sorry if it does develop into a colony, for there is room for more low-growing, colourful plants in that area of my garden, especially those that add winter interest.