If you were to Google the words “elephant ear,” you would find a range of images, from the delicious, doughy staple of fried fair fare to those enormous pachyderms in all their gray, wrinkly glory.
As a gardener you will zoom in on pictures of large, green leaves that so cleverly resemble those flappy elephant ears on the real animal. After scanning perhaps hundreds of pictures of elephant ears, you may find yourself filled with a burning desire to add these tropical plants to your own garden.
Well, you’ve come to the right place for all things elephant ear! Elephant ear care, that is. I can’t help you with the animals. If you’re looking for cool plants to grow, this is a one of a kind houseplant or outdoor ornamental.
Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Elephant ear plant, tarul, dasheen, chembu, champadhumpa|
|Height and Spread||3 to 6 feet tall and wide|
|Light||Full sun to patial shade|
|Soil||Rich organic soil 5.5-7.0 pH|
|Pests and Diseases||Spider mites, thrips, Phytophthora blight, root rot, corm rot|
All About the Elephant Ear Plant
When a plant has been in cultivation for more than 28,000 years like the Colocasia, it can be harder to pin down where it started. The evidence speaks to a beginning in Southeast Asia, though this is still widely debated. These tropical perennial plants grown all over the world have been a food crop for areas near the equator in countries like Indonesia, Polynesia, China, and Africa.
While my earlier warnings of digestive issues from consuming this plant may put a few readers off their feed, it is true that every part of this plant is edible as long as it’s prepared correctly.
Hawaiians in particular used the corms for poi and leaves for luaus, though much of their production has been replaced with modern agriculture. In spite of that, some of their Colocasia varieties have been preserved by agricultural scientists and new ones are being bred.
Dasheen, chembu, eddoe, and tarul are just a few of the names belonging to this genus, with others that are even more a mouthful to say. To keep herbivores from filling their mouths with it, these plants have raphides, or microscopic calcium oxalate needles, which help facilitate the transfer of an irritant that causes severe discomfort.
This is a more complicated way of referring to the “elephant ear poison.” However, this hasn’t stopped humans from using the 12 or so different species through fermenting or cooking, sometimes with some sort of acid like lime.
While a few varieties may put a root or two over the dividing lines, most Colocasia are either clumpers or runners. For example, aquatilis may not be a good choice for small gardens as it produces very long above-ground runners, or stolons. You may end up with more elephant ears in your small space than you wanted. Colocasia Illustris, Black Beauty, and Coal Miner are the only ones with below-ground runners.
If you want slow or non-runners (gee, I can really relate to those types), the clumping varieties with their attractive vase shape may work better for you.
Elephant Ear Types
If you’re a bit boggled by all the different names you see associated with the elephant ear plant, don’t be discouraged. There are more than 3,000 species out there!
Native to tropical and subtropical Asia to Eastern Australia, there are 79 species of this popular potted house plant, Alocasia. They include several from New Guinea, and others from places like Malaysia, the Philippines, Sulawesi, and Borneo.
While the flowering plants in the closely related genus, Caladium are known as “elephant ear,” you wouldn’t think that their other names include “Angel Wings” and “Heart of Jesus,” unless you usually think of elephants with angel wings sprouting from their backs.
Xanthosoma is a genus native to the tropical areas of the Americas and prized for their carbohydrate-rich corms, or bulbotubers. The leaves are different from the Colocasia in that they aren’t peltate. This genus gets its name from its yellow tissues, xanthos being Greek for “yellow.”
There are dozens of different types of elephant ear plant, but here are 26 of the most popular varieties. Some of them are small, and some grow to be gigantic elephant ear plants if they’re given optimal growing conditions.
- Amazonica: Striking foliage with scalloped edges.
- Bikini Tini: Bold color, taller than most varieties
- Black Beauty: Deep purple leaves with green stems.
- Black Magic: Deep purple, large leaves at 3 to 6 feet tall.
- Black Stem: Deep black stem with green leaves.
- Calidora: Ribbed foliage, huge leaves.
- Chicago Harlequin: Giant green leaves with blotches.
- Coffee Cup: Black stems, leaves shaped like small cups.
- Cranberry: Upright elephant ears with bright ruby-red stems.
- Diamond Head: Deep purple leaves that are glossy.
- Electric Blue Gecko: Brightly colored stems and foliage.
- Elena: Light, bright, green leaves.
- Frydek: Deep green leaves with bright white stems.
- Illustris: Huge leaves with dark highlights.
- Limeade: Two-tone green marbled leaves.
- Longiloba: Emerald green, stretched out leaves.
- Midori Sour: Red stems with bright green leaves.
- Mojito: Mottled light and dark green leaves.
- Nigra: Wide, dark green matte leaves.
- Noble Gigante: Massive 3′ long grey-black leaves.
- Pink China: Hyper-bright pink stems.
- Puckered Up: Rippled shiny black leaves.
- Red Stem: Deep red stem with green leaves.
- Tea Cup: Tiny, teacup-shaped green leaves.
- Yucatan Princess: Upright elephant ears, glossy, green-purple leaves.
- Zulu Mask: Long, dark-olive leaves. Undersides are purple.
How To Plant Elephant Ears
When your area has seen the last of the frost and cold temperatures, you should be safe for planting outdoors.
As far as how deep to plant elephant ear bulbs, you should plant tubers fairly close to the soil’s surface, perhaps two to four inches. Some types, such as Colocasia esculenta, can be potted in shallow water, submerged during the summer around the edges of a pond, for instance. If not in standing water, mulching may lend a helping hand.
Good drainage is a must when planted in the ground. Give the taller varieties room to grow, as some can reach eight feet tall!
Elephant Ear Plant Care & Tips
Growing elephant ears is actually pretty easy, even in winter. While it’s a bit more picky than something like a cast iron plant or a zz plant, with a little attention you can have your elephant ear thriving.
Light and Temperature
Depending on the type, these tropical plants prefer sun or partial shade, though some might like full shade even better. It’s not so much the sun that is the issue with them, though too much can cause browning problems, but the warmth.
If you find the temperature dropping below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), that might be a good time to move them indoors or into a greenhouse. Elephant ears are fantastic zone 9 plants and above — you usually won’t have to worry about frost in these zones. If you live in a colder climate, consider keeping your elephant ear plant indoors or in a greenhouse, at least to overwinter.
Water and Humidity
Repeat after me: moisture, moisture, moisture. These are plants that need moist soil! Keep them away from strong winds, perhaps potting them partially submerged in water, or make good use of mulch.
Because they are a water-loving plant, you might think that any browning at the tips is a sign of over-watering. This could be the case, but in most cases the browning is caused by too much sun and too LITTLE water.
Check the top five inches or so of soil around the plant for dryness and adjust watering as needed. Elephant ears like humid areas but not necessarily direct sunlight. A partially shady spot may be ideal, especially if you start noticing a browning of the leaves in a dryer climate.
Elephant ears need rich soil. When you’re preparing the planting site for your Colocasia, you’ll need a well-draining soil that can also retain some moisture. Amend rich soils with plenty of agricultural sand or perlite.
Additions of peat moss will help retain moist soil. You can also use a soilless mix, succulent mix, or even a cactus soil with peat added. All provide support when you plant elephant ears. Let’s face it – elephant ears can grow 3 to 6 feet tall. If you’d like to enjoy the unique beauty of this plant but control the size, consider growing elephant ear plants in pots.
Choose a pot that’s large enough for the roots to spread out both horizontally and vertically. Planting elephant ears in pots is nice when you need to overwinter them, because you can just drag them indoors or pull them into your greenhouse at the end of the growing season.
Fertilizing Elephant Ears
Elephant ears grow best in soil rich with organic compost and organic fertilizers. If you can get your hands on some manure (please wear gloves), the plants will love you for the tasty meal. Fertilize about once a month with a slow release all purpose pelleted fertilizer.
Pruning Elephant Ears
Use sterilized pruning shears to remove dead, damaged, or diseased leaves from your elephant ear plant. When you prune, wear gloves and long sleeves, as the sap can irritate your skin. Prune leaves off as close to the main stem as possible.
When your leaves start to die back at the end of the growing season, you’ll want to cut them off and store the elephant ear bulbs over winter. Prune to about 6 inches above ground and gently unearth the tubers, being careful not to damage them as you dig and move them.
If you’re growing in containers, cut down the foliage at the end of the growing season and move the plants indoors for winter.
Propagating Elephant Ears
If you are planting fertilized seed, sow it on the surface and look for germination to happen around 21 days. For overwintering bulbs outside, shredded leaves can help protect the bulb from freezing and rotting.
Troubleshooting Elephant Ears
Minus controlling diseases while overwintering tubers, there aren’t a ton of issues you’ll deal with when it comes to elephant ears. Here are a few things to be aware of when you grow these tropical plants, though.
When you notice your elephant ear plant flower and leaf production is dropping off, check the bulb for swelling and possibly even movement upward in the soil. This is a good indication that it’s time to dig up the bulb and transfer it indoors.
Grow elephant ears in plenty of well-draining soil, and moisture to keep them happy. A lack of water can cause yellowing leaves, and leaf drop. Too much water causes brown, droopy leaves. Too much light can singe the leaf tips as well.
If needed, unearth your tubers and move them when they’re in less than optimal conditions, or grow elephant ears in containers to ensure it’s easy to make adjustments.
Spider mites hide under plant leaves, and even spin webs to protect themselves. Use neem oil, insecticidal soaps, and even predatory mites like the Phytoseiulus persimilis to control spider mites. Yes, good creepy bugs to control the bad creepy bugs.
Thrips, aka thunderflies and storm bugs, can be beneficial, eating mites and fungal spores, but some eat plants and transmit viruses. Insecticidal soap and some pesticides can help, though thrips are hard to control due to their rate of reproduction and slender shape.
Aphid wasps, Trichogrammatidae, and Eulophidae can also control thrip populations. Use plantings to attract them to your garden and give them a healthy crop of pests to feed on. Then you have the ecosystem working for you!
Fungal leaf Blight (Phytopthora infestans) is a fungal disease that can be common for elephant ears thanks to their constant begging for moisture, made doubly difficult when you can’t dry out this plant to fight the fungus. Try to avoid the problem to begin with by directing water to the roots and not the leaves.
Bacterial leaf spot is transmitted microscopic bacteria that cause little brown spots to appear on leaves. A copper fungicide applied in the early stages of the infection can help. Avoid planting where previously infected plants had been.
Phyllosticta leaf spot is a fungal disease that lives on elephant ears. Moisture is the culprit for the spread of this fungus, which shows as little purple or black spots. Splashing water can spread it from one plant to the next, so keep watering controlled and directed.
Though it doesn’t usually kill entire plants, it does kill leaves and makes the plant susceptible to other nasty critters. Keep some space between your plants to allow for air circulation. Prevention is best as it is nearly impossible to eliminate the fungus on an infected plant. Some fungicides can help protect healthy plants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What’s the best way to overwinter my elephant ear plant?
A: If you don’t have room in your house for elephant ears, then dig up the tubers, allow them to dry a bit, and store them in a dry spot that stays around 45 to 50 degrees all winter long. Putting them in mesh bags and tucking them in layers of peat moss is good storage method.
Q: There are so many different kinds of elephant ears! How do I choose?
A: First of all, find elephant ears that match the zone you live in. That will narrow things down a bit to begin. After that, look at pictures of the different ones and see which ones are most pleasing to you.
Q: Do elephant ear plants come back every year?
A: As long as you grow elephant ears in their hardiness zone, or bring the plants or tubers indoors during winter if they aren’t, they will return in spring.
Q: How poisonous are elephant ear plants?
A: Elephant ears are slightly poisonous but lower on the scale than other plants. You should avoid contact between sap and skin, as it can cause rashes and irritation.
Q: Where do elephant ears grow best?
A: Elephant ears do best in areas that have adequate sunlight, well-draining yet moisture-retentive soil, and temperatures that don’t stay below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C).
Q: Can I leave my elephant ears in the ground?
A: You’re probably good to leave them in the ground in zones 8 to 11, but in cooler zones, grow elephant ears in containers and bring them indoors. Alternatively, you can dig up the tubers and overwinter them.
Q: Do elephant ears like sun or shade?
A: In temperate zones, elephant ears love full sun, and do just as well in part shade. They are fairly adaptable.
Q: What do you do if you touch an elephant ear plant?
A: Err on the safe side and wash your hands after handling elephant ears. If you used gloves when you pruned them, wash your gloves and pruners before next use.