The winter cherry, also known as bladder cherry owing to its seed pod resembling a bladder or inflatable bag, is native to parts of Europe and China. It is a perpetual plant having a straight stem with branches and grows approximately up to two feet in height. The winter cherry plant bears oval shaped leaves that are pointed at the ends and two to three inches long. The edges of the leaves are jagged like teeth, have numerous veins and grow in braces. The petals of the winter cherry flowers appear between June and August and drop as soon as the calyx, also called the ‘lantern', gets bigger. These ‘lanterns' ripen during August and September and encloses a reddish fruit that is like a cherry.
Once the petite white colored petals of the winter cherry fade in autumn the coils of the green calyx that remained unnoticed till then starts getting bigger and transform their shade. Before long, the sepals of the plant turn change into crimson pods that look like Chinese paper lanterns. Hence, the calyx of the plant is also called ‘lantern' and they enclose a reddish berry.
Early day herbal medicine practitioners, who were guided by the principle of signature whereby a plant resembled human parts that it cured, asserted that the winter cherry was an effective medication for the kidney and bladder stones. Significantly, the scientific name of winter cherry ‘Physalis' means a bladder in Greek. In ancient England, herbalists Gerard and Culpeper studied the fruits of winter cherry and found them to possess diuretic properties that were not only effective in enhancing the urine outflow, but also throwing out the gallbladder stones from the body. Incidentally, during those days, one patient asserted that he avoided suffering from gout by consuming eight winter cherry berries every fortnight. Although the winter cherry was extensively used as a remedy during the 16th and the 17th centuries, by the 18th century physicians hardly recommended the use of the plant's fruits.
The winter cherry is generally eaten as a fruit and owing to its diuretic properties, it is useful in treating a number of urinary and arthritic troubles. The winter cherry fruits or berries are conventionally used by European herbalists who recommend them to cure kidney and gallbladder stones. In addition, the winter cherry is also known to be an effectual medication to decrease fever.
While the fruits of the winter cherry may be used to prepare jellies and jams, the delicate seed pods of the plant known as lanterns are frequently dried by people for use as decorative items with floral arrangements in autumn and winter.
The winter cherry berries possess diuretic as well as mild laxative properties and hence they are used to treat suppressed urine as well as stones in the kidneys and gallbladder. In addition, physicians recommend the use of the winter cherry fruits to treat fevers and gout. In fact, some patients suffering from gout have disclosed that they were able to ward off the disorder by consuming eight berries during the change of each moon. Ancient Greek herbalist and physician Dioscorides had asserted that the berries were also useful in treating epilepsy. In fact, people residing in the rural areas use the berries to treat themselves as well as their animals, particularly while recuperating from scarlet fever.
In addition, the leaves and the stems of the winter cherry are used to treat depression affecting people after a bout of malaria and they also serve as a useful tonic for the feeble and anemic people. Taking heavy doses of the winter cherry may lead to heaviness and constipation, but it has also been found to be useful in treating colic or stomach aches followed by diarrhea.
The winter cherry powder is also effective in reducing fevers, but not as effective as sulfate of quinine. Winter cherry leaves boiled in water also serve as a calming poultice.
The entire winter cherry plant possesses antipyretic, antiphlogistic, antitussive as well as expectorant properties. This herb is effective for treating ailments related to the skin and urinary tract and has been used extensively for these purposes. It is advisable that women using this herb for their conditions should do so with great caution, as taking it in large amounts may result in unwanted abortion. The fruit of the winter cherry plant is laxative, potently diuretic and also has the aptitude to dissolve stones formed in the kidney and bladder. This fruit is always harvested when it is completely ripened and can be consumed fresh, dried or the juice extracted from the fruits can be drunk. However, be sure to get rid of the calyx before using the fruit.
The stem as well as the leaves possess febrifuge (aptitude to reduce fever) properties and are somewhat stimulant. The seeds also possess therapeutic properties and are employed to encourage labor before time. In addition, the fruits are also used to prepare a homeopathic remedy, which is used to treat problems related to the kidneys and the bladder.
You may consume the winter cherry fruits fresh and raw or after cooking. The fruits of this plant are loaded with vitamins and contain as much as double the vitamin C content of lemons, but are not very tasty. According to a different report, winter cherry fruits are succulent, but have a bitter caustic taste, while yet another report claims that the fruits add a delectable essence to salads. The fruit of winter cherry is actually a berry measuring about 17 mm across. In order to protect the fruits from being destroyed by the elements and pests, the plant naturally envelopes them in the calyx. However, the calyx of winter cherry is extremely toxic and should be avoided. You may also consume the tender leaves of this plant after cooking. Here is a word of caution: the leaves of this plant are surely poisonous, especially when they are consumed raw.
Mostly winter cherry is cultivated for its ornamental value - this plant has vivid hued, orange husks (also called lanterns) that envelope the fruits. Occasionally, these ‘lanterns’ are utilized in flower decoration, generally after the leaves have been removed.
Habitat and cultivation
The winter cherry is indigenous to the central and southern regions of Europe as well as China. The plant normally grows in the wild in humid places and along the roads or pavements. The herb is commercially cultivated in the warm temperate climatic zones as well as sub-tropical expanses such as North and South America and South Africa. The mature fruits or berries of the plant are harvested during summer.
As mentioned above, the winter cherry is an extremely decorative plant. However, this plant may also prove to be very invasive. During spring, slugs prefer to devour on winter cherry plants and they may often wipe out substantially large clumps of the plant.
Commercially, winter cherry plants are grown from their seeds, which are ideally sown in a greenhouse during March-April with enough soil only to cover up the seeds. Normally, the seeds germinate quite fast as well as freely. When the winter cherry seedlings have developed to significant size and you are able to handle them, you should prick the seedlings out and plant them again in individual containers/ pots containing somewhat fertile soil during the early part of summer. Changes in the temperature during the day assist the seeds to germinate fast.
Alternately, it is also possible to propagate winter cherry through root division, which is preferably done during spring. It is very simple to grow the plants in this procedure and the larger root divisions may be straight away planted in their permanent positions outdoors. However, the basal cuttings are done during the summer.
Preferably the shoots should be harvested when they have roughly grown to a height of 8 cm to 10 cm and with lots of underground stem. These shoots should be replanted in separate containers/ pots and placed in a greenhouse or cold frame in partial shade till they root properly. They can be transplanted into their permanent positions outdoors during the summer.
Berries of the winter cherry plant may be consumed directly or in juice form. For best effects, take six to twelve berries or half an ounce of the juice extracted from the fruits.
Side effects and cautions
If you intend to use this herb to treat any condition you may be suffering from or for culinary purposes, you should know that barring the ripened fruits, all other parts of this plant are poisonous.