Like tomatoes and eggplant, Chinese lantern plants (Physalis alkekengi) belong to the nightshade family. While lantern plants aren't edible, they do produce bright orange husks that dry to resemble paper Chinese lanterns. Once dried, the husks retain their shape and colour for years, making them suitable for use in dried floral arrangements and other decorative items.
Chinese lanterns must fruit and produce a mature husk before they are ready to dry. Harvest stems once the lanterns are bright orange and fully formed but before they begin to split. The husk should still feel moist around the stem area and not papery. Cut stems as long as possible. Water leads to mildew problems when drying, so collect the lanterns after the morning dew has dried. Choose only undamaged lanterns that show no signs of discolouration, as these damaged areas become more apparent once dried.
Chinese lantern leaves do not dry well, and add nothing ornamental to finished arrangements. Strip all of the foliage from the stems, leaving only the lantern husks in place. Inside each husk is a small fruit that is mainly made up of seeds. Do not split open the husk to remove the fruit, as this ruins the shape of the lantern and may cause it to collapse completely. The fruit inside dries along with the husk, so it poses no trouble once the lanterns are properly dried.
Air drying ensures that the Chinese lanterns maintain their shape. Dry single stems or gather two to three stems together for drying. While you can tie the stems together with string, a rubber band secures the stems and also contracts as the stems dry so none of the Chinese lanterns slip out. Find a well-ventilated, dry area to hang the lanterns as they dry. Avoid areas with bright light, as the light may bleach some of the vivid orange from the husks. It takes three or more weeks for the lanterns to dry completely. Once properly dried, the husk feels like paper and the seeds may rattle inside.