- Elephant Ear Plant Overview
- History of the Elephant Ear Plant
- Elephant Ear Plant Types
- Planting Elephant Ears
- Elephant Ear Plant Care & Tips
- Pests and Diseases
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 ear plants, you may find yourself filled with a burning desire to add these tropical beauties to your own garden.
Well, you’ve come to the right place for all things elephant ear! Elephant ear plant 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.
Elephant Ear Plant Overview
|Common Name(s)||Elephant ear plant, tarul, dasheen, chembu, champadhumpa|
|Scientific Name||Colocasia / Xanthosoma / Caladium / Alocasia|
|Origin||Oceania, South America, Southeast Asia|
|Height||Up to 9 feet|
|Light||Full sun to patial shade|
|Humidity||Medium to High|
|Soil||Rich organic soil 5.5-7.0 pH|
|Propagation||By seed, division, or runners|
|Pests||Spider mites, thrips|
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!
The following are the related genera in the Araceae family.
Native to tropical and subtropical Asia to Eastern Australia, there are 79 species of this popular potted house plant. They include several from New Guinea, like aequiloba, boa, and monticola, and others from places like Malaysia, the Philippines, Sulawesi, and Borneo.
Vietnam, which boasts a species or two such as vietnamensis, is known for the use of elephant ear stalks as an herb in various soups and stir-fry dishes.
Before you try tossing a few into your next meal, keep in mind they can be poisonous if they’re not cooked.
While the flowering plants in this closely related genus 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.
The seven species are indigenous to Central and South America, also naturalized in a few parts of Africa and India.
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 plant 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.
Here is a genus native to the tropical areas of the Americas and prized for their carbohydrate-rich corms, or bulbotubers. It is also a common food staple and an ornamental, though 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 at least 75 species of Xanthosoma, from acutum to yucatanense.
History of 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. It has 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.
Elephant Ear Plant Types
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.
Tip: If you want a unique variety, I suggest going with one of the black elephant ears, like ‘Black Beauty’, also known as the “black magic plant.”
Striking foliage with scalloped edges.
Bold color, taller than most varieties
Deep purple leaves with green stems.
Deep purple, huge leaves.
Deep black stem with green leaves.
Ribbed foliage, huge leaves.
Giant green leaves with blotches.
Black stems, leaves shaped like small cups.
Bright ruby-red stems.
Deep purple leaves that are glossy.
Electric Blue Gecko
Brightly colored stems and foliage.
Light, bright, green leaves.
Deep green leaves with bright white stems.
Huge leaves with dark highlights.
Two-tone green marbled leaves.
Emerald green, stretched out leaves.
Red stems with bright green leaves.
Mottled light and dark green leaves.
Wide, dark green leaves.
Massive 3′ long grey-black leaves.
Hyper-bright pink stems.
Rippled shiny black leaves.
Deep red stem with green leaves.
Tiny, teacup-shaped green leaves.
Upright, glossy, green-purple leaves.
Long, dark-olive leaves. Undersides are purple.
These different but related genera have similar planting requirements, with a few little special quirks of their own. Before choosing a variety to plant, you might want to consider this: whether the variety is a clumper or a runner.
Clumpers vs. Runners
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.
Planting Elephant Ears
When your area has seen the last of the frost and cold temperatures, you should be safe for planting outdoors. Check what zones of the type you pick are hardy to — Colocasia “Pink China” is possibly hardy to Zone 6 but some others, like Colocasia gigantea “Thailand Giant Strain,” are quite settled in the Zone 8b area.
Elephant ears are fantastic zone 9 plants and above — you usually won’t have to worry about frost in these zones.
Caladiums are generally Zone 10. Keep a close eye on your outdoor temperatures, as damage can occur below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a colder climate, consider keeping your elephant ear plant indoors, at least to overwinter.
How to Plant Elephant Ear Bulbs and Seeds
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.
If you are planting fertilized seed, sow it on the surface and look for germination to happen around 21 days.
Where to Plant Elephant Ear
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.
Alocasia types sometimes do better in a controlled greenhouse environment.
There are a few sun-resistant varieties of Caladium being cultivated, if this proves to be an issue for you. 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.
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, that might be a good time to move them indoors or into a greenhouse.
Repeat after me: moisture, moisture, moisture. These are plants that need a lot of water! 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 do like their 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.
Pay attention to the size your choice of plant may grow to and plant accordingly, giving them room to stretch out so they don’t hog the sun from one another.
Different elephant ear plants can have different leaf colors and shapes, so it can be fun to try several kinds together planted in interesting patterns.
Other recommendations include ferns of contrasting colors, flowers like begonias, and foliage with smaller leaves like Coleus.
How to Overwinter Elephant Ears
Particularly for any Zone below 7a, overwintering indoors is recommended. Zone 8b and further south may be able to overwinter outside with some protection but a hard winter might make its spring comeback difficult.
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.
If they are already potted, just bring them in; they make excellent houseplants, too. Place them somewhere with light and adjust your watering as the plant goes semi-dormant.
If you don’t have space for these rather large houseplants, you can also just dig up the tubers and store them someplace dry and warm enough to avoid freezing. Skip the airtight containers, though. This can invite moisture building and destroy your hard work.
For overwintering outside, shredded leaves can help protect the bulb from freezing and rotting.
Growing in Pots
Let’s face it – elephant ears can get pretty big. 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 for the cold season.
Pests and Diseases
Leaf Blight – Fungal diseases 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.
Standard fungicides can take care of this issue, but try to avoid the problem to begin with by directing water to the roots and not the leaves.
Bacterial leaf spot – Just like it sounds, this microscopic bacteria causes 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 – Again, 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 to move. Prevention is best as it is nearly impossible to eliminate the fungus on an infected plant. Some fungicides can help protect healthy plants.
Spider mites – Even the name gives me the creeps. Hiding under plant leaves, these little bugs even spin webs to protect themselves.
The use of neem oil, insecticidal soaps, and even predatory mites like the Phytoseiulus persimilis can control the spider mite population. Yes, good creepy bugs to control the bad creepy bugs.
Thrips – Some of their other names are more exciting, like thunderflies and storm bugs. Some 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.
Q: What’s the best way to overwinter my elephant ear plant?
A: Depends on where you live and what type you have. The easiest way would be to grow them in pots and bring them into the house once the temperatures dip.
If you don’t have room in your house for them, 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 ones 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.
Perhaps you like the deep, glossy, purplish-green of the black elephant ear plant, like the Colocasia Black Coral. Or something with deep pink stems and bright green leaves, like the Pink China. This should get you started down the path to the right one for you.
So many elephant ears, so little time! If you really want people to wonder about you, try saying this out loud at your next dinner party. Then again, that might not be a good idea if you have a lot of vegetarian friends.
At any rate, it would be a great conversation starter with fellow gardeners, allowing you to enlighten them about these large-leafed beauties. Perhaps you could start a trade with them, sharing the different colors, shapes, and sizes between you for years to come.
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