Shake Up Your Garden With Elephant Ears
Want to add some excitement and personality to your garden this summer? Plant elephant ears! These tropical plants can grow up to 6 feet tall, with leaves as long as your arm. Elephant ears have always been popular in Florida and other parts of the deep south where they thrive in the summer heat and humidity. These days, they are being grown in nearly every part of the country – even in northern states.
Read on, if you’d like to learn more about these impressive tropical foliage plants, how to care for them, and creative ways to incorporate elephant ears into your garden and landscape.
Alocasia vs Colocasia
The common name “elephant ears” applies to two different species of plants.
Alocasias have glossy leaves that may be solid green, variegated, or display contrasting veining. Though there are some exceptions, you can usually recognize alocasias by the way they display their heart-shaped leaves. The tip of the heart either points outward, perpendicular to the stem, or straight up.
Alocasias are generally smaller in size than colocasias. This makes them popular for small gardens and containers. Alocasias are also sensitive to direct sunlight and prefer growing in partial shade. They should be planted in rich, well-drained soil. Too much moisture can stunt their growth.
Colocasias display their leaves with the tip of the heart pointing downward. These are moisture-loving plants and it’s almost impossible to overwater them. Most colocasias tolerate full sun. In fact, large ones such as Colocasia esculenta, require full sun to attain maximum size.
What to Expect During the Winter
There is another other significant difference between alocasias and colocasias. In climates where elephant ears are hardy, most colocasias shed their leaves in the winter, while alocasias do not. You’ll want to keep this in mind when deciding where to plant your elephant ears and how to care for them over the winter.
In growing zones 9-11, alocasias can survive the winter outdoors and will retain their leaves all year round — as long as they are not damaged by cold weather. In areas where alocasias are not hardy (zones 4-8), you can either treat them as annuals or bring them indoors to grow as houseplants during the winter months.
Colocasias, on the other hand, die back to the ground in late fall. This happens even in climates where the bulbs are winter hardy. In zones 4-8, the bulbs should be overwintered indoors. Cut back the foliage in fall (before the first frost), dig up the bulbs, and store them in a dark, dry place at about 55°F. Replant in spring.
Remember that all elephant ears are sensitive to cold, and their foliage can be damaged if temperatures fall into the 30’s. If you live in zone 9, choose a planting location where a structure or other plants can provide some cold protection.
Heat and Humidity
Most elephant ears are native to tropical regions: the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia. The air in these climates is hot and steamy, and soil temperatures rarely fall below 80°F. Though you may not be able to replicate these ideal growing conditions, knowing where the plants come from, should inform how you care for them.
Elephant ears grow best in a warm, sheltered location where they are protected from strong winds. In cool climates, you’ll find plants grow faster and get significantly larger when they are grown in containers. This is because the soil temperature in a container is always warmer than it would be in the ground.
Alocasias and colocasias detest cold soil. When soil temperatures are below 70°F, the bulbs will refuse to sprout and plants will not put on any growth. In the central U.S., elephant ears should not be planted outdoors until well after Memorial Day. In northern areas, soil temperatures are rarely warm enough until mid-June. If in doubt, it’s better to wait. Once the soil gets warm, the plants grow very quickly.
Lots of Choices
As elephant ears become more popular, plant breeders are introducing lots of exciting new varieties. Leaf color, stem color, height and spread can vary widely, so pay close attention to the description. Some, like Colocasia esculenta Diamond Head have dark foliage. The leaves of colocasia Hawaiian Punch are smaller than average, but the plants form large clumps with lots of stems. Colocasia Black Stem has tall, maroon stems and a graceful, open growth habit. Colocasia Hawaiian Aloha has 18” wide leaves that are metallic teal blue. Hawaiian Maui Gold has chartreuse foliage on pale stems.