Slow to Grow: Elephant Ears

Colocasia esculenta

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It has been agonizingly slow this spring, watching and waiting for our elephant ears to grow.  I blame the weather.  Wouldn’t you?

After all, we enjoyed 80F days in February, and then retreated back to wintery grey days through most of March.  We’ve been on a climatic roller-coaster since.

Gardeners, and our plants, appreciate a smooth transition from one season to another.  Let it be cold in winter, then warm gradually through early, mid and late spring until we enjoy a few weeks of perfect summer in late May and early June.  We know to expect heat in June, July and August, with moderating temperatures and humidity by mid-September.

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I started working on this new bed in March, bringing the still potted Colocasias in doors and back out with the weather. Although I planted them weeks ago, they are still sulking a bit in our cool, rainy weather this month.

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But lately, our seasons feel rather muddled.  That smooth crescendo from season to season has gone all rag-time on us.  We’ve already lost a potted Hydrangea Macrophylla teased into leaf too early, and then frozen a time too many.  Those early leaves dissolved in mush, but new growth started again from the crown.

I’ve watched the poor shrub try at least 3 times to grow this spring, and now it sits, bare, in its pot while I hold out hope for either a horticultural miracle, or a clone on sale; whichever comes first.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ loves our climate and spreads a bit each year. Its pink spot and pink stem inspired its name. This is the Colocasia I happily dig up to share with gardening friends. These will be a little more than 5′ tall by late summer.

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I hedged my bets last fall with the elephant ears.  I left some in situ in the garden, some in their pots, but pulled up close to the house on the patio, and I brought a few pots of Alocasia and Colocasia into our basement or garage.

I dug most of our Caladiums and dried them for several weeks in the garage, and then boxed and bagged them with rice hulls before storing them in a closet through the winter.  I left a few special ones in their pots and kept the pots in our sunny garage.

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Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’ overwintered for us  dried and stored in a box with rice hulls. I planted the tuber again in early April.

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And I waited until April before trying to rouse any of them.  But by early April, while I was organizing a Caladium order for 2017, I also planted all of those stored Caladium tubers in fresh potting soil and set them in our guest room to grow.  Eventually, after our last frost date in mid-April, I also retrieved the pots from the basement and brought them out to the warmth of our patio.  They all got a drink of Neptune’s Harvest and a chance to awaken for summer.

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Caladium ‘Desert Sunset,’ didn’t survive winter in our garage. (This photo from summer 2016)  I left them in their pot, but it must have gotten too cold for them.  Happily, I ordered new tubers this spring.

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Around this time I gingerly began to feel around in those Caladium pots kept in the garage, for signs of life.  I thought I’d divide and replant the tubers and get them going again.  But, to my great disappointment, not a single tuber survived.   The Caladiums succumbed to the chill of our garage sometime during the winter, and I had three generous sized, empty pots to recycle with fresh plantings.

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C. ‘Desert Sunset’ didn’t make it through the winter, so I’ve recycled the pot for other plants. Calla lily has a form similar to some Alocasia, and is more tolerant of cold weather. These are hardy in Zone 7.

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By the time our new Caladium order arrived in mid- April, the tubers I’d dried, stored, and replanted were in growth.  I moved them to the garage to get more light and actually planted the first batch of Caladiums outside by the first week of May.

I planted most of the new Caladiums into potting soil filled boxes and sent them off to the guest room to awaken, but chanced planting a few bare tubers into pots outside.  Mistake.

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These saved Caladiums, started indoors in April, moved outside to their permanent bed in early May. Still a little slow to grow, they have weathered a few cool  nights this month.

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Because for all the promising balmy days we’ve had this spring, we’ve had our share of dreary cool ones, too.  We even had a few nights in the 40s earlier this month!  It’s generally safe here to plant out tomatoes, Basil and Caladiums by mid-May.  Sadly, this year, these heat lovers have been left stunted by the late cool weather.

The new Caladium tubers planted indoors are still mostly sulking, too, with little to show for themselves.  The ones I planted directly outside in pots remain invisible.  I just hope they didn’t rot in our cool, rainy weather.

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Colocasia ‘Black Coral,’ started in a greenhouse this spring, has been growing outdoors for nearly a month now. This one can get to more than 4′ tall in full sun to part shade.

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Of the saved Colocasias and Alocasias, C. ‘Mohito’ has done the best.   I brought a large pot of them into the basement last fall, and knocked the plant out of its pot when I brought it back outdoors in April.   I divided the tubers and ended up with several plants.  They are all growing nicely, though they are still rather small.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ has been in the family a few years now. It overwinters, dormant in its pot, in our basement. This is one of 5 divisions I made at re-potting time this spring.

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I dug up our large C. ‘Tea Cups’ in October and brought it indoors in a pot, leaving behind its runners.  The main plant began vigorous growth again by late April, but none of the runners seem to have made it through the winter outdoors.

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Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ also overwintered in the basement.  New last year, this plant has really taken off in the last few weeks and is many times larger than our new C. ‘Tea Cups’ plants.  It catches rain in its concave leaves, thus its name.

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I brought one of our Alocasia ‘Stingray’ into the garage in its pot, where it continued to grow until after Christmas.  By then the last leaf withered, and it remained dormant until we brought it back out in April.  It has made tiny new leaves ever so slowly, and those new leaves remain less than 6″ tall.

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Alocasia ‘Sting Ray’ spent winter in our garage.  It has been very slow to grow this spring, but already has many more leaves than last year.  It will eventually grow to about 6′.  Zone 8-11

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But that is better than the potted A. ‘Stingray‘ that overwintered on the patio.  We’ve been watching and waiting all spring, and I finally gave up and dug through the potting soil last week looking for any sign of the tuber.  I found nothing.

But, fearing the worst, we already bought two new A. ‘Stingray’ from the bulb shop in Gloucester in early May, and those are growing vigorously.   They enjoyed the greenhouse treatment through our sulky spring, of course.

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Our new A. ‘Stingray’ grows in the blue pot in front of where another A. ‘Stingray’ grew last year. I left the black pot out on the patio over winter, and the Alocasia hasn’t returned. I finally planted some of our new Caladiums in the empty pot last week.

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I have two more pots of Alocasia in que:  A. ‘Plumbea’ has shown two tiny leaves thus far, so I know it is alive.  A. ‘Sarian’ has slept in the sun for weeks now, its tuber still visible and firm.  Finally, just over this weekend, the first tiny leaf has appeared.  I expect it to grow into an even more  beautiful plant than last summer since.  It came to us in a tiny 4″ pot, and ended summer at around 5′ tall.  I can’t wait to see how large it grows by August!

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Alocasia ‘Plumbea’ isn’t’ available for order from Brent and Becky’s bulbs this year. I am very happy this one survived winter, because it is a beautiful plant.  Hardy in zones 3-10, this will grow to 5′.

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But the pot of Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii,’ that overwintered on the patio, has shown nothing so far, either.  Hardy to Zone 8, I hoped the shelter of our patio might allow this two year old plant to survive.  Now, I’m about ready to refresh the soil and fill that pot with some of the Caladiums still growing in our garage.

C. ‘Blue Hawaii’ is marginal here.  A few have survived past winters planted in the ground; but thus far, I’m not recognizing any coming back in the garden this year.

I’ve planted a few C. ‘Mojito’ in the ground this spring, and plan to leave them in the fall to see whether they return next year.  But I will also hedge my bet and bring a potted C. ‘Mojito’ inside again so I’ll have plants to begin with next spring.

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C. ‘Mojito’ in our bog garden will soon get potted up to a larger container.  I planted a few of the smaller divisions of this plant directly into the ground to see if they will survive the winter coming. (Zone 8)

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Every year I learn a little more about growing elephant ears.  I know now that Colocasia ‘China Pink’ is vigorous and dependable in our garden.  There is no worry about them making it through winter, and I dig and spread those a bit each year.

The huge Colocasia esculenta I planted a few years ago with our Cannas dependably return.  These are the species, not a fancy cultivar.  But they seem to manage fine with nothing more than some fallen leaves for mulch.

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These gorgeous tropical elephant ears put on a great show for four to six months each year in our zone.  Deer and rabbits don’t touch them, and they rarely have any problem with insects or disease.   Our muggy, hot summers suit them fine.  They love, and need, heat to thrive.

Any temperate zone gardener who wants to grow them, needs to also plan for their winter dormancy.  And each plant’s needs are unique.  Some Colocasia might be hardy north to Zone 6.  A few Alocasia cultivars are hardy to zone 7b or 8, but most require zone 9 to remain outdoors in the winter.  Caladiums want a lot more warmth, and prefer Zone 10.  Caladiums can rot in wet soil below 60F.

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Hardy Begonias are naturalizing in this lively bed transitioning to summer.  I planted the Caladiums about a month ago, and they have slowly begun to grow.  See also fading daffodil leaves, Japanese painted ferns, Arum Italicum, and creeping Jenny.

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If you don’t have space to store elephant ears over winter, you can still grow them as annuals, of course.    That requires a bit of an investment if you like them a lot, and want to fill your garden!

My favorite source for Colocasia and Alocasia elephant ears, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs,  has put all of their summer bulbs, including Caladium tubers,  on clearance now through Monday, June 5.   This is a good time to try something new, if you’re curious about how these beautiful plants would perform in your own garden, because all these plants are half off their usual price.  The Colocasia and Alocasia plants they’re selling now come straight to you from their greenhouses.

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Alocasia ‘Sarian’ emerged over the weekend. This is a very welcome sight!

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I order our Caladiums direct from the grower at Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, Florida (see below).  There is still plenty of time for you to grow these from tubers this summer, as long as your summer nights will be mostly above 60F for a couple of months.  Potted Caladiums make nice houseplants, too, when autumn chills return.  (Brent and Becky’s Bulbs buy their Caladiums from Classic Caladiums, too.  You will find a much larger selection when you buy direct from the grower.  Classic Caladiums sells to both wholesale and retail customers.)

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Slow to grow, this year, but so worth the wait.  We are always fascinated while watching our elephant ears grow each year, filling our garden with their huge, luscious leaves.  Once they get growing, they grow so fast you can see the difference sometimes from morning to afternoon!

Our summer officially begins today.  Now we can settle in to watch the annual spectacle unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Is your region too cool for tropical Elephant Ears? Get a similar effect with rhubarb. This rhubarb ‘Victoria,’ in its second year, emerges in early spring. Leaves have the same basic size and shape as Alocasia leaves without the shiny texture. There are a number of ornamental rhubarbs available, some of them quite large.  These are easy to grow,  perennial north into Canada, and grow into a beautiful focal point in the garden.

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

2 responses to “Slow to Grow: Elephant Ears

  1. I bet all these love your summer humidity. I had the black taro for many years, but overwintering it was challenging. Now I just have Papyrus ‘Little Tut’ which stays a manageable size and puts up with the meager light of our winters indoors.

    • “Little Tut” is adorable 😉 I’ve not grown it, but appreciate knowing that it translates well indoors for winter. It’s good that someone/something appreciates the humidity; we certainly have trouble with it, as does the cat! It’s that time again, with Mayflies and mosquitoes, too 😉 Hope you had a great weekend, Eliza.

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