One in an occasional series of guides on growing popular plants. Other guides include azalea, redbud, Lenten Rose and peony.
The elephant’s ear in its various forms is immediately recognizable by its cluster of oversized arrow-shaped leaves, some reaching five feet or more in length. It is the consumed tropical plant, not only in its origins, but in its ability (alongside ornamental bananas, caladiums, angel trumpets, and cannas) to transform any balcony, patio, or patio into a tropical themed garden throughout summer and fall.
The popularity of “tropics” in recent years has led to a rich line of elephant ear varieties now available to home gardeners. If you can’t get your hands on some of the more sophisticated varieties such as the nearly black leafed varieties or the absurdly gigantic green cultivars, the standard green elephant ear does indeed remain large and lush. In general, the leaf tips of colocasias point downwards and those of alocasias point upwards, although not all follow this rule. Colocasia esculenta is taro, an important food plant around the world that is mainly harvested for its tuber-shaped bulb, although the leaves and stems are also eaten. The plant contains irritants and toxins and requires knowledgeable preparation and cooking. Here we will focus on the ornamental utility of the elephant ear.
A single bulb will produce a clump of leaves that are typically five feet high and the same width. The display can be enlarged by planting additional bulbs. Dwarf varieties are available when a smaller stature is required or desired. The giant versions grow to nine feet, with individual leaves five feet or more in length.
Use and placement
Use elephant ears anywhere you want to make an impact with a striking foliage plant. In a container, they can stand on their own as a statement, but placed with other leafy plants, they become essential elements in evoking a jungle paradise. In the tight spaces of a balcony or patio, they can create attractive foliage walls. They also look great at the edge of ponds and can be used as breathtaking plants to mark transitions in the landscape.
Planting and maintenance
Elephant ears do best in full sun or partial shade. Their most important need is water – they drink a lot to keep the leaves turgid and will show signs of wilting when they are thirsty. Placement in soil rich in organic matter and light mulch will promote soil moisture retention. They make excellent potted plants – raised pots give them even greater stature – but the pots should be at least 12 inches in diameter to provide the mass of soil they need to maintain even moisture. However, a potted elephant ear may need to be watered daily in the middle of summer; be sure to use a pot that drains and leave at least an inch between the soil surface and the rim of the pot to facilitate watering.
They are also heavy eaters and benefit from regular fertilization. A weekly application with a weak solution (half the recommended concentration) of nitrogen-rich fertilizer will promote the desired lush growth. The plant will continue to produce new leaves during the warmer months – remove the older leaves as they refuse to keep the plants fresh.
In the central Atlantic, elephant ears should be dug out before the first frost of fall and stored indoors, dormant, during the winter for planting the following May. After cutting the leaves, let the bulbs dry in front of a fan for a day or two, then store them in vermiculite or peat moss in a cool, dry place, but above freezing.
Some varieties do not form bulbs and can be kept in leaves all year round as houseplants. Varieties with a pronounced single bulb at the end of the season tend to overwinter dormant even indoors.
An unnamed elephant ear is probably Colocasia esculenta, the taro food plant, which also makes an impressive ornamental. You will pay a premium for more unusual types, including cultivated varieties of taro, of which there are many.
One of the largest colocasias, measuring nine feet tall with leaves five feet long and four feet wide, is Thailand Giant, a selection of Colocasia gigantea. A related variety is named Laosy Giant. Jack’s Giant is a giant taro. Dark Star is a mammoth green leaf alocasia, just like the golden yellow Alocasia lutea. Keep their size and impact in mind when choosing a location for them.
Royal Hawaiian is a series of branded cultivars with a wide range of leaf shapes, sizes, colors, and markings. They include varieties such as Maui Sunrise and White Lava, which have creamy centers.
Almost black leafed elephant ear varieties abound and include Black Coral, Aloha, Black Magic, and Coal Miner. These add drama to tropical arrangements and pair well with caladiums, dahlias, cannas, and annuals with strong red, orange, and yellow flowers or leaf markings.
Lime Zinger is a brilliant acid green (and botanically a Xanthosoma).
A few hybrids of small and long-leaved alocasia have been developed as houseplants, notably Alocasia x amazonica. Polly is a dwarf form, reaching 24 inches.
Xanthosoma Lime Zinger. (Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder)
Colocasia Black Magic. (iStock)
Colocasia gigantea Thailand Giant. (Walters Gardens)
Colocasia esculenta coal miner. (Shutterstock)
TOP LEFT: Xanthosoma Lime Zinger. (Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder) TOP RIGHT: Colocasia Black Magic. (iStock) BOTTOM LEFT: Colocasia gigantea Thailand Giant. (Walters Gardens) BOTTOM RIGHT: Colocasia esculenta Coal Miner. (Shutterstock)
Main illustration by Washington Post / iStock / Shutterstock staff. Icon illustrations by Jeannie Phan