All About Elephant Ears
By Katie Elzer-Peters, gardening expert and writer.
Elephant Ears, loved for their tropical foliage come in countless colors and sizes.
The elephant ears you grow in your garden are probably edible, though not as tasty as the fried dough concoction you buy at the state fair. Several species and genera of plants go by the name “elephant ear” due to the shapes of their leaves. The two main groups are colocasias (edible plants are in this genus) and alocasias (upright elephant ears).
Colocasias are also called “taro,” and the corms (bulb-like structure that you plant in the spring) are boiled and mashed to make a traditional food called “poi.” I’m not a big fan of poi, but if you go to a luau, you’ll be able to taste it. Look for the purple paste-like concoction on the menu.
Right Plant Right Place
Any gardener from zone 3 to zone 10 can grow elephant ears. The key is selecting the right plant for your garden location and then giving it the proper care. With some pants you can cheat a bit on the space requirements. Elephant ears are not one.
Imperial Taro is slightly smaller in stature than ‘Sangria’, but both can top out at between 3-4 feet wide and tall. Portora upright elephant ear can get up to 8 feet tall, which makes a spectacular scene in the garden, but is a little large for some spaces.
In addition to size, you’ll also want to consider growing conditions. Elephant ears need a constant supply of water. Super fast draining, low moisture soils are not the place to grow them. They also require high soil fertility, so gardeners with sandy fast-draining soils are going to need to amend with compost or grow elephant ears in containers. In terms of light, elephant ears almost uniformly need full to partial sun. A few varieties can handle more shade. Check the plant descriptions when shopping.
Winter Care for Elephant Ears
Every gardener can grow elephant ears, but not every gardener can grow elephant ears as a hardy perennial/bulb. Many varieties are cold hardy to zone 7b and have to be lifted and stored for the winter in zones 7a to zone 3.
To store elephant ears for winter wait until a frost has knocked back the foliage. Then dig up the corm (bulb-like structure) and cut off the foliage. Clean off the soil and store the corms in a cool, dry place until spring.
You can also overwinter elephant ears as houseplants. Cut off all but a few of the youngest leaves and pot up. Bring inside to a sunny location and water when the soil is dry. Plants won’t grow as much as they will outside during the summer, but this method of overwintering will give you a head start on the spring.
Growing your own Island Oasis
I am not a fan of just plunking an elephant ear into the middle of a garden bed and calling it a day. Like other big tropical plants, I think elephant ears look best in context, which, for me, means growing alongside other tropical or tropical-looking plants. It’s a tricky balance, though, finding annual or perennial plants that evoke an island experience while requiring the same types of conditions as elephant ears. Plant selections change the further north the garden, as well.
Hosta would look great as an underplanting with elephant ears, but ‘Black Magic’ is the only elephant ear that can handle as much shade as hostas require. (It’s a great plant for shade combinations.) Lantana looks tropical, but it prefers drier soil than elephant ears.
Here’s what to plant alongside your sun-loving elephant ear varieties instead:
- Caladiums—they need more shade in warmer climates, but gardeners in cooler climates can get away with planting caladiums under elephant ears. Cannas and elephant ears are also frequent container companions.
- Sun-loving coleus—for nice color contrasts.
- New guinea impatiens—they look tropical and they can handle sun as long as they receive plenty of water.
- Cannas—other sun-loving, water-loving, fertilizer-loving tropical plants.
- Tropical hibiscus—for bright color.
- Cucumbers—if you’re into foodscaping, cucumbers need a lot of water and can scramble up the elephant ears for support.
- Lysimachia—a good trailing plant for containers or groundcover for garden beds.
Shop Elephant Ears
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Elephant Ears in Grandma’s Garden
When people think of their grandmother’s garden, they might think of roses or phlox. Perhaps purple coneflowers make an appearance.
I think of elephant ears.
My grandma had a huge elephant ear plant that she and my grandpa would drag out of the garage every year and plant next to their mailbox. It had its own little flower bed outside of their southern Indiana house. The bed was surrounded by a 12 inch white picket fence and it sat empty during the winter, waiting.
They’d plant the bulb in the spring and then every time I talked to her on the phone, she’d tell me how big it was getting. “It’s up to my knees!” “It’s up to my waist!” Around August I’d get a letter with a picture—an honest to goodness picture from a disposable film camera, taken to the drugstore to be developed—of my grandma standing proudly next to the elephant ear plant. By that point it was almost as tall as she was, and as big as my car.
Gardening with tropical(ish) plants takes some patience and knowledge to get good results from year to year. As someone who grows and writes about plants for a living, it is sometimes strange to see someone in my family employing such specific know-how to coax a plant along. Thinking of my grandma and her giant elephant ear gives me such a visceral connection to her that few other memories do, and something I’ll think about whenever I see the plants growing.
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About the Author: Katie is a writer, runner, and reader, living in southern coastal North Carolina. Her favorite garden is her "wild flower patch" where something new is always blooming (or taking over). Back to top.
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