Elephant ears make an interesting addition to your garden bed

Elephant ears (Colocasia sp.) are that plant with the huge heart-shaped leaves that look like they belong in a tropical rainforest. That’s probably because they do. They are native to Southeast Asia.

These peace lily and caladium relatives are one of those plants that can be perennial, but usually, it takes some ingenuity to get them to return year after year. Leaves of some types can be over two feet across and three feet long, so they can be quite dramatic.

Most species of that Arum family are tropical, but there are exceptions. Growing up in Maine, I regularly encountered a plant called skunk cabbage. It is an elephant ear relative that is very winter hardy.

Just as there is variation about the hardiness of all Arum family plants, there are considerable differences concerning specific types of elephant ears. Some may be left in the ground with no additional protective mulch and come back year after year.

Dwarf elephant ears are usually less winter hardy than the giant types. These should either be treated as annuals or dug up and stored until spring.

Some people like to plant elephant ears in large pots and bring them inside for the winter. They grow well in a sunny window but require quite a bit of space. They are also easily mutilated by pets, so they might look a little ragged when taken outside in the spring.

If planted directly outdoors, elephant ears grow best in well-drained but moist soils and partial shade to full sun. We are in zone 8, which is at the limit of hardiness for even the giant types.

For those concerned about their plants dying over the winter, I suggest cutting the plants back after a frost and digging up the underground structures. Let the plants dry down before storing and keep them in the garage or another cool dry place for the winter. If this method is used, it is important not to replant them until all danger of frost has passed in the spring.

Most people refer to these fleshy structures as bulbs, but they are corms, much like on gladiolus. Anatomically, these corms more closely resemble the tubers of potatoes than they do bulbs.

By the way, corms of one type are edible and grown for food production throughout their natural range. This is a group of plants referred to as taro, and they are cooked before they can be consumed. People eat cooked taro leaves too.

Young common elephant ear corms may be cooked and eaten by some people, but many suffer mouth irritation as plants contain calcium oxalate. Leaves should not be consumed raw or cooked. In fact, they can be somewhat toxic to pets. Several references refer to elephant ears as being readily consumed, but I suspect many of these are confusing elephant ears with taro. They are very similar looking.

Many folks like to incorporate their landscape with that tropical look. If you are one of those people, elephant ears might be for you.

Elephant ear plant ready for transplanting

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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6 Responses to Elephant ears make an interesting addition to your garden bed

  1. cs hopkins says:

    Great timing for this informative post. Love elephant ears! I am starting a small garden in my side yard that is mostly shade and planned on puting elephant ears with ferns and hosta in the space. Hopefully, they will grow there. (I live west of Atlanta-Zone 8, I think)

  2. tonytomeo says:

    These were a fad here for a while, when they became available at big box stores. They were quite contrary the other ‘drought tolerant’ fad. Not many of us in the Santa Clara Valley had riparian situations for them. They do not like the chaparral climate there anyway. I sort of wonder how many of those sold are doing well now.

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