The elephant ear plant (aka Colocasia) is a spectacular, jumbo-sized tropical plant that is popular in landscapes across the United States and valuable as a food crop in many tropical areas of the world.
In this article, we will describe the plant and provide sound advice on choosing, planting, and caring for it in your home or garden, even if you live in an area that experiences cold winter months. Read on to learn more.
Elephant Ear Plant Cultivars & Their Uses
There are several attractive Colocasia varieties. All are members of the family Araceae. One of the toughest is the edible Colocasia esculenta. This cultivar is also called Dasheen or Taro. This variety is grown in abundance in tropical settings. It produces a starchy tuber used as the basis for the diet in much the same way you find rice or potatoes used in many cultures.
Edible taro is a tough tuber that must be cooked correctly and thoroughly before eaten. Failure to cook it properly can result in gastrointestinal distress. Furthermore, care must be taken when harvesting the tubers because contact with the sap of the plant can cause skin irritation from the calcium oxalate (oxalic acid) in the stems and leaves.
The Elephant Ear plant can also be mildly poisonous to cats and dogs. If your pet ingests Elephant Ear, the result can be an upset stomach, difficulty swallowing, excessive salivation, vomiting, and irritation of the tissues of the mouth.
A purely ornamental cultivar is Colocasia antiquorum. This variety is also known as ‘Black Beauty Elephant Ear’ and was once listed as Caladium esculentum. This is a striking plant with dark purple veins and leaf margins.
The Xanthosoma, Alocasia, (good article here) a close relative of the elephant ear is also an upright variety. The plants have straight, sturdy, upright stems topped with arrow-shaped leaves. The leaves are quite striking with their starkly contrasting, prominent veins. Although this plant is manageable as a houseplant, when left to its own devices in an ideal setting, some varieties can grow to be fifteen feet high.
Elephant Ears Leaves & Flowers
The leaves of the Elephant Ear are often referred to as heart-shaped or shield-shaped. They come in green leaf varieties and varying shades that can be nearly black. The plant may flower nicely outdoors, but it will rarely flower indoors. Flowers are encased in a green sheath that splits to reveal a cob-like flower of greenish-yellow. The flowers are not fragrant, but they are quite visually appealing.
What Are the Best Landscape Uses for Elephant Ears?
With such a large leaf the Elephant Ear can add interest under tall trees and in other sheltered locations. They are the ideal plant to add elegance to any water feature.
In USDA hardiness zones 8-11, Colocasia is a carefree, year-round plant. In very warm, humid areas, such as Florida, they can even be considered invasive.
They provide a tropical touch to any landscape during the warm months of summer. They do well even in the northernmost areas of the US if they are brought in during the freezing months.
Remember that Elephant Ear plants are enthusiastic growers. Be sure to select a planting site that will give each bulb about 3 square feet of growing space. Don’t over-plant as you will very quickly end up with overcrowding.
When fully grown, Elephant Ear leaves can be three or four feet long. Colocasia can stand up to seven feet high. Alocasia can attain a height of 15 foot tall. For this reason, they need lots of space for their root systems.
The spread of the fast-growing leaves and foliage demands a great deal of space. Not only must there be room for the leaves to expand, but there also must be ample soil space available to establish a strong root system that can support these massive leaves. Without proper support, the stems will be weak. This can lead to breakage and collapse.
Growing the Elephant Ear Plant in Sun or Shade
The giant Taro Colocasia can grow well in full sun, but it is happier and more attractive in filtered sunlight or partial sun. For the most part, you are better off choosing a location that gets high light or light partial shade. These plants enjoy ample light; however, they generally do better when not exposed to punishing sunlight.
Select High-Quality Jumbo and Giant Elephant Ear Bulbs
You can purchase giant Elephant Ear bulbs like these at your local garden center, online, or from one of the many high-quality mail-order bulb houses. As with all bulbs and tubers, inspect your purchases carefully and shun any that have signs of decay or damage.
You want plump, healthy-looking bulbs for best performance. Remember it only takes a few of these jumbo plants to fill a space, and they will multiply quite abundantly!
Growing Elephant Ears As Foliage Plants in Pots or Large Containers
Because they can grow to be so large, keeping these plants indoors can be a challenge. It’s important to keep in mind that the plant needs plenty of light to grow strong stems that support the weight of the heavy leaves.
Still, if you have a generously-sized planter in an area that gets sufficient indirect sunlight with a comfortable room temperature (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit), you can give indoor growing a go.
Some gardeners believe that the best candidates for this are the Alocasias, as they are upright Elephant Ears. The leaves grow straight upward, so you may not have quite as much competition for space using this type of plant as a houseplant.
No matter which type of Elephant Ear you choose to keep indoors in wintertime, you will need to provide high humidity. A humidifier can be very helpful. It is also wise to elevate the pot by placing a layer of pebbles between the bottom of the pot and its saucer. This will help humidify the air surrounding the plant. It will also help prevent root rot.
Be sure to move your indoor Elephant Ear outdoors during the warm spring and summer months so that it can get a growth, health, and energy boost from the fresh air and sunlight. Your plant will produce young rhizomes during the warm growing season.
Watering & Feeding Your Colocasia
Elephant Ears are very hungry and thirsty plants. In the wild, they are swamp dwellers. They develop very extensive and hardy underwater root systems and have access to lots of nourishing decayed organic matter and ample water. This trait makes them a good choice for low areas in your yard. They are also the perfect water garden or pond-side plant.
When you plant these tropical plants in a bed, you must be certain to set it up with good, nitrogen-rich, well-drained soil. Be prepared to water and fertilize often. They respond well to slow-release fertilizers. Unlike many types of bulbs and tubers, Elephant Ears like to have the soil moist at all times. Adding a thick layer of mulch to prevent evaporation is a smart idea.
Grooming Your Elephant Ears Plants
Luckily, the foliage of these handsome plants does not require much care. Because the leaves are so huge, you would be wise to establish your planting area in a sheltered setting to avoid wind damage. Avoiding harsh, direct sunlight is also a good idea to prevent leaf burn.
Trimming and pruning are mostly unnecessary. Just remove spent leaves and flowers throughout the growing season. Cut back withered foliage in the autumn before preparing your tubers for the winter months.
How Do You Propagate Elephant Ears?
In the summertime, when your plant is outdoors in the ground or in a large pot, it will produce several offset tubers. When you prepare your bulbs for overwintering, you can separate these corms, store them, and use them in the coming year to produce new plants.
Alternately, you can start these new bulbs indoors to enjoy young Elephant Ears as houseplants through the winter months.
Overwintering Elephant Ear Bulbs
If you live in a northern state, you will want to treat your Elephant Ears as annuals. To do this, you should dig up the tubers and store them through the winter. You can replant them in the spring. Here are the steps you should take to over-winter your bulbs.
For plants growing in beds:
Just after the first frost, you should:
- Cut back spent foliage.
- Dig up your tubers, leaving a good amount of soil attached.
- Store your tubers (soil and all) in a cool (45-55 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, dark place until springtime.
For potted and container plants:
- When leaves start to yellow, withhold water and allow the foliage to die back.
- Do not water again.
- Store the plants in containers in a cool (45-55 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, dark place until springtime.
- Check on the bulbs from time to time for signs of drying out or rotting.
- Discard any bulbs that go bad.
- In the springtime, divide and repot your tubers.
How to Revive Stored Tubers in the Springtime
When spring arrives and the days begin to warm, you will want to put your stored tubers into pots just large enough to hold the tubers. Surround the bulbs with a light soil consisting of peat moss, coco coir, and/or sand. It should not be too rich.
This step is just to give your plants a head start on the growing season. Be sure to keep the soil mixture moist in these early days.
Transfer the bulbs to outdoor beds after all danger of frost has passed. Be sure to give them plenty of space, approximately 3 – 6 feet tall between plants. During summer months, provide them lots of water.
Elephant Ear Pests & Problems
Colocasia is a robust and enthusiastic plant, and you should have few problems if you are prepared to provide it with abundant water and lots of fertilizer. A strong, healthy plant can fight off most pests and problems on its own. Nevertheless, you may occasionally encounter some challenges. Here are some of the most common problems.
Elephant Ear Leaves Turning Yellow:
This condition is chlorosis, and it may happen for several reasons. Among them are:
- Old age
- Too little sun
- Too much sun
- Too little water
- Too much water
- Too few nutrients
- Too much fertilizer
Clearly, yellowed leaves are a symptom of a variety of ills. To determine what the problem is, you will have to do a little sleuth work to uncover the cause and then adjust your regimen accordingly.
These little pests are drawn to the big, shady, water-holding leaves of the Colocasia. This is especially true in dry climates where water is at a premium. If your plant is infested with spider mites, you will see gray webbing on the undersides of the leaves.
You can try giving the plants a good spraying with a strong stream of water. Sometimes this is enough to dislodge and discourage the pests. If this doesn’t work, use a reputable brand of miticide. Be sure to follow packaging directions closely.
These little pests also love to attach themselves to juicy leaves and suck the life out of plants. If your Elephant Ears are infested with thrips, you will see pale, silvery patches on the plant leaves. Misting your plants often will help discourage thrips in the first place. If they do invade your plants, use a reputable insecticide and follow packaging directions closely.
The Pros & Cons of Elephant Ear Plants
Colocasia is beautiful and easy to grow, but on the downside, in areas where the plant does tend to grow aggressively, its large heart-shaped leaf can block the sun for smaller, native plants and can cause damage and species loss.
You may also have a problem with Elephant Ear leaf blocking the sun for your smaller garden plants unless you plan your planting carefully. Personally, I like to keep them in containers!
There are even some states where these plants have been deemed invasive. In Texas, for example, it is against the law to plant or transport Elephant Ear and residents are urged to report sightings of it to the Department of Parks and Wildlife. If you live in a southern state, you should check your local regulations before planting.
In areas where the plant cannot go wild and overrun your yard and surrounding area, Colocasia is an elegant, easy-to-grow springtime and summertime addition to your landscape. It can also make a lovely houseplant during the winter months.
A List of Popular Elephant Ear Varieties