If you wish to create a bold and beautiful tropical background to your landscape this summer, now (March/April) is a great time to plant Elephant Ear bulbs.
For about the past 15 years, I have been fortunate to enjoy Elephant Ears in my back yard with very, very little garden work involved. There was only one really very cold winter that I recall when I had to plant a few extra bulbs the following spring, otherwise my Elephant Ears have reliably sprouted and multiplied throughout the years. (That really cold winter I’m speaking of was the very unusual February in 2011 when we had freezing temps and ice on the ground for 3 -4 days straight – during Super Bowl weekend of all inconvenient times!) At any rate, the reason I mention this is because Elephant Ears are tropical plants and thus, are considered annuals in Zones 7b and northward. You will most likely have to dig up the bulbs and overwinter them from year to year if you reside in the less than tropical zones of the U.S. The good news about this practice is it will give you the opportunity to split the corms (or eyes of the bulbs) and produce more plants the following year. I personally live in Zone 8a and as I stated earlier, although my Elephant Ears are 95% of the time perennial, there is always a little wiggle room with the annual/perennial designation depending upon the location in your yard that you plant your bulbs and if you have a particularly cold or warm winter. (For a detailed garden zone map, including lookup by ZIP code, see http://www.garden.org/zipzone/index.php.)
Elephant Ears are fast-growing, huge foliage plants very similar to, but much, much larger than their close relatives, caladiums. Depending upon where you live, Elephant Ears will grow 3 – 6 feet tall and their leaves can become as large as . . . ummm . . . Elephant Ears! Because of their bold appearance and need for ample space both in width and height, it is best to plant Elephant Ears in corners of your home or landscape – or on the back row of your beds. They will give a tropical, summertime feel to any landscape and thus, are especially attractive planted in yards with pools or ponds. You may find bulbs that produce green, variegated or dark purple leaves. So – depending on the color of your home’s brick, rock, wood, etc. you are sure to find striking specimens perfect for your surroundings. Various leaf margins can also be found among the exotic species, such as smooth, ruffled or scalloped.
Unlike most bulbs & tubers, Elephant Ears enjoy warm, humid and oftentimes wet conditions. In very hot areas of the U.S., such as south Texas and Florida, Elephant Ears do best if planted in full to almost full shade. Areas north of these states can plant the bulbs in mostly sunny to partly sunny locations. My Elephant Ears are planted in a corner of my backyard that is mostly shaded and stays a bit damp. They thrive in this (relatively) cool, damp locale, although they do get a burst of sunlight for a couple of hours in the late afternoon – amazingly from the reflections of a couple of my neighbors western facing windows! Sometimes the sun is so intense bouncing off the windows in the Texas heat, I will find the leaves of my plants will have temporarily wilted and dipped to the ground. However, after a quick spray of the water hose they usually perk up by the next morning.
Once you have found the perfect location in your landscape for your Elephant Ears, you will need to plant the bulbs, pointed end up (or sideways if you have a bulb that is hard to differentiate), at about 2 inches under the soil. Typically, the bigger the bulb, the bigger the plant, thus, depending on the size of your bulbs you may wish to leave about 1.5 to 2 feet between each one accordingly.
As I mentioned earlier, in the ornamental sense, Elephant Ears are grown specifically for their large and beautiful leaves. However they do flower on rare occasions. The flowers remind me of those of peace lilies (although about 10 times larger!).
Another interesting fact about Elephant Ears (also called Taro) is their bulbs have been cultivated for many centuries in the tropical areas of Oceanic, Asian and African countries, and still are today an important part of the Hawaiian diet. In fact, Taro is considered a “tropical potato”. Different cultures utilize the bulb (and sometimes the stalk and leaves) in different ways, but it is always cooked thoroughly. If not, the plant can cause quite an upset stomach, among other problems, as it contains calcium oxalate crystals which can produce gout and kidney stones in humans. Since pests are hardly a problem with Elephant Ears, it is thought the spiny calcium oxalate crystals within the raw plant actually deter insects from eating the plant as well.
Incidentally, as I was researching Elephant Ear, or Taro, I came across many photos of people eating Elephant Ear pastries at county fairs. At first I thought they were actually deep fried Elephant Ear leaves! Well, come to find out, it is just another name for a huge pastry – one that does not include chlorophyll, by the way. Elephant Ear pastries, no matter how authentic they look to deep fried leaves, are simply another tasty carnival tidbit similar to funnel cakes and Belgian waffles. Either they don’t routinely bake them in Texas or I simply have overlooked this treat all of my life (which is hard to believe since I love funnel cakes!)
Well, at the close of this post, I’d like to point you to a couple of websites that provided me a wealth of information – but the main reason I’d like you to visit them is to gaze upon the photos to see just how huge an Elephant Ear leaf can get. Truly amazing.
I hope you find the perfect place to create your tropical paradise this year!
Until next time,
Originally posted 2011