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A customer poses with her 'Thailand Giant' Elephant Ear plant!
Elephant ears are giant leafy (mostly) tropical plants. Colocasias are what we primarily call “elephant ears,” but alocasias (upright elephant ears) slip in there, too.
When you buy dormant elephant ear plants, you’re buying the corms, or bulb-like structure. A corm is a swollen underground stem. Corms look like bulbs, but while bulbs are formed from compressed leaves, a corm is all stem. When you cut into a corm you won’t see any layers.
Elephant ear corms grow over time, with the original corm doubling or tripling in size. Plants also produce offsets that can be broken off and planted elsewhere.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tropical plants in temperate places became the hot (pun intended) design trend, plant breeders selected, developed, and released elephant ears with varying leaf colors and sizes. They’re fantastic for quick summer greenery and a lush look in the landscape.
Elephant ears are warm-weather plants. Some will survive in-ground over the winter in zones as cold as 6, while others need to be dug up and stored for the winter unless planted in a zone 9 garden. It always pays to check the cold hardiness information about the variety you’ve purchased. Bulbs can grow to be large, so if you can leave them in the ground, do.
Light: Most plants grow best in full sun to partial shade. ‘Black Magic’ is an exception that performs well in partial to full shade.
Soil: Grow elephant ears in moist, loamy soil with a high organic matter content.
Spacing: Spacing depends on the variety you’re growing. You could need anywhere from 2 feet to 6 feet between plants to allow them enough room to spread out.
Planting: When planting new elephant ears or re-planting for the spring, set corms in the garden when nighttime temperatures are consistently 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant 4-6 inches deep. (The bigger the bulb the deeper it goes.) Most elephant ears will grow to be at least 4 feet wide, so give them space!
Plant corms 2-4 feet apart, 4-6 inches deep in moist, well-drained soil high in organic matter. You can grow the smaller varieties in large containers. (Large, as in whiskey-barrel-sized containers.) If growing in containers you’ll have to keep the soil evenly, constantly moist.
Elephant Ears come in a wide variety of colors and sizes.
Growth Habit: The growth habit depends on the type of elephant ear. Stems of colocasias grow up and then the leaves open, causing stems to slightly droop. This creates an umbrella shape. Alocasias (upright elephant ears) have leaves that point sharply upwards. The overall plant is somewhat rounded, but it’s definitely a different look than the colocasias.
Elephant ears can be clumpers or runners. Clump-forming elephant ears form slowly-expanding clumps (as the name suggests). Runners can spread out via aboveground or underground stems. In warm areas where the plants are perennials, they can become almost weedy.
Staking: Elephant ears do not require staking.
Watering: These are high water plants. The more water they get the bigger they’ll grow. Some varieties will even thrive when planted in a pot and grown as a marginal pond plant. (Pot fully submerged.) Containers will need to be watered daily during the summer. Plan on giving plants at least 2-3 inches of water per week.
Fertilizing: Elephant ears are heavy eaters, as well as drinkers. Fertilize monthly with a general fertilizer of choice. Organic slow release fertilizers will last longer, so choose something like bonemeal or bloodmeal when possible.
Trimming & Pruning: Plants will produce new leaves throughout the growing season. Remove wilted, browning, or ratty leaves by cutting them off at the base of the plant.
Mulching: Mulch with shredded hardwood or shredded leaf compost at the time of planting. That will help keep the soil moist and the soil fertility high.
In warm areas where elephant ears are hardy, simply cut the plants back after a freeze and mulch on top of the plants for extra winter protections. In zones 7 to 3, plants have to be brought inside.
You can choose to cut back the leaves, dig up the corm, and store it in a cool, dry place for the winter. Alternatively, you can cut back all but a couple of leaves, dig up the corm, and plant it in a container to grow as a houseplant during the winter. Make sure to harden off these plants in the spring before re-introducing them to the garden. (Start by moving pots to a covered porch for a few days when the temperature is right, before planting in the ground.)
Dividing & Transplanting: Elephant ears reproduce via offsets and seeds. Seeds are rare unless you hand-pollinate the plants. When you purchase elephant ears, you'll receive a big corm. If you dig the corm up in the fall after a season of growth, you'll see smaller offsets forming. Those can be broken off and planted in the spring.
To divide running varieties, simply dig up a section of the plant and replant elsewhere.
It's a good idea to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning off ratty leaves, as plants have a natural chemical compound in them that can cause skin irritation in some people.
Colocasias are important food crops around the world. If you’ve ever heard of taro-that’s an elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta). A Polynesian dish made from the cooked and mashed up corms of elephant ears, poi, is frequently served at traditional Hawaiian luaus and plate lunch restaurants. It’s an acquired taste.
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