Pot Shots: Elephant Ears

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All of the various ‘elephant ears’ love our coastal Virginia heat and humidity.  They grow visibly each day, generously sending up new leaves so long as they are kept watered and their soil is rich with nutrition.  This pot of Caladiums, Alocasia and Colocasias was just potted up yesterday.  it looks a bit sparse at the moment, but will soon fill in very nicely.

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Caladium ‘Pink Splash’ will grow to two feet in partial sun.  It grows with a Begonia, a dark purple hybrid Colocasia and Alocasia ‘Portora.’

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Caladiums are hardy only to Zone 10, but it is easy to dig them up and dry them in November, saving them inside over the winter to grow again the following year.  Keep even their dormant tubers at 65F or above.  The Caladium ‘Southern Charm’ is a new hybrid that grows in full to partial sun.

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Alocasias are hardy to Zone 8 or 9, and so they can be brought indoors in pots and kept alive in a garage or basement over winter.  I’ve not had good luck with digging and drying their tubers, but kept our best Alocasias in full leaf and growing all winter in our garage.

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I bought this Alocasia at Trader Joes last winter and don’t know its cultivar name. It will be interesting to see how large it grows.

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Most Colocasias are also hardy only to Zones 8 or 9, though there are a few that will survive our Williamsburg winters in the ground.  They spread by stolons and so increase each year.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’, hardy to Zone 8, spends its winter vacation in a pot in our basement.  This division is quickly outgrowing its pot in our new little water garden.  Many Colocasias grow happily in a pond or boggy ground.

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When kept from year to year, all three of these elephant ears calve off new tubers and increase.  Their tubers grow a bit beefier each year and produce larger plants each summer.  If you like elephant ears, and take simple measures to help them through winter, you will soon have plenty to grow and more to share.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ is hardy in our Zone 7 garden.  Alocasia ‘Sarian’ grows in a pot with Caladium ‘White Queen.’

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The potential size of most Colocasia and Alocasia hybrids is determined by available light, moisture, and how much room you give their roots to grow.  They may grow to 6′ high or more when their needs are met.  They always grow larger planted into garden soil than when grown in a pot.  But, it is easier to keep them alive year to year when they live in a pot.

When potting or re-potting, I mix some Espoma Plant Tone into the potting mix.  Depending on the mix, I often add some additional perlite to improve aeration and drainage.  Mulch the soil with pea gravel or aquarium gravel to neaten up the presentation while helping to retain moisture for these thirsty plants.  Finish with a sprinkle of Osmocote time release fertilizer to keep them well nourished every time you water.

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This Alocasia kept some leaves through the winter in our living room.  It is sending up new growth now that it is back out on the patio.

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If you want to grow something truly spectacular in your summer pots, and something that needs very little care or attention from the gardener, try any of these beautiful ‘elephant ear’ plants.  Add a Begonia or two for blooms, and you will have your own bit of tropical paradise in your summer garden.

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June 6, Alocasia ‘Portora’ has begun to grow surrounded by Caladium ‘Southern Charm.’ By next month this time, the Alocasia, which can grow to 6′,  should be significantly taller than the Caladiums.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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These Colocasias are just getting started on their summer growth.

 

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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.

Summer Love: Caladiums

'Florida Sweetheart' Caladium growing in a basket with Begonia 'Richmondensis' offers the perfect summer Valentine.

‘Florida Sweetheart’ Caladium growing in a basket with Begonia ‘Richmondensis’ offers the perfect summer Valentine.

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I love the bright, bold Caladium leaves of summer.  These huge tropical beauties, often called ‘elephant ears’ for both their size and their shape, remind me of living Valentines.   Their form, their red and pink coloring, and their wild patterns remind me of February’s little expressions of love, grown huge summer’s muggy heat.

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C. 'Gypsy Rose' was among the first Caladiums we planted out in early May.

C. ‘Gypsy Rose’ was among the first Caladiums we planted out in May.

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Ours got a late start this year.  It was too cold to put them outside until well into May.  Caladiums love heat!

Plant them out too early and they will sulk along, and maybe even rot before rooting and sending up their beautiful leaves.  Growers counsel us to wait until it is 65F outside at night, consistently, before planting them in the ground.

That is why I start them indoors, in potting soil, and have them ready to go outside when the weather has warmed enough to grow them.

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These 'Florida' series Caladiums, developed at the University of Florida, can take more sun than many other varieties will tolerate.

These ‘Florida’ series Caladiums, developed at the University of Florida, can take more sun than many other varieties will tolerate.

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I planted out the last of our sprouted tubers just last week, believe it or not!  These last were some of the tiniest tubers which came with our order, and they were planted in a plastic box, waiting in the garage for me to decide where they were to go.  (Sometimes small pieces break off of larger tubers during shipping.  Though they are small, they will still root and grow!)

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These are the last stragglers of this season, planted out about a week ago. Their tubers are the size of grapes, but I expect them to fill out in the coming weeks.

These are the last stragglers of this season, planted out about a week ago. Their tubers are only the size of grapes, but I expect them to fill out in the coming weeks.  The largest is C. ‘Florida Red Ruffle.’

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These were the last to finally grow leaves.  I planted them in the shade of some shrubs, where we’ve not had Caladiums in years past.  They are near the top of our drive, planted in a shallow layer of compost, where we can see and enjoy them every time we come and go.  With this new bed started, I’ll begin adding companions after the Caladiums establish, to fill it out.

The Caladiums I ordered last February, from a grower in Florida, arrived huge and healthy.  I was amazed to unpack them and discover a few  Caladium tubers the size of baking potatoes!

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C. 'Florida Fantasy' remains one of my all-time favorite Caladiums. They are surprisingly sun tolerant to have such a delicate, white leaf. This one grows in full shade.

C. ‘Florida Fantasy’ remains one of my all-time favorite Caladiums. They are surprisingly sun tolerant to have such a delicate, white leaf. This one grows in full shade.

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But some from a ‘starter pack’ we also ordered from the grower, weren’t that large at all; maybe the size of a large grape.  Not to worry.  The tuber size doesn’t affect the leaf size or height.  This is a genetic thing.  The tuber size determines how many leaves will grow from the one plant.  And of course, the tuber expands over the course of the season.

I also picked up a pack of C. ‘Florida Moonlight’ tubers at the ‘end of season’ sale from a local nursery.

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C. 'Florida Moonlight' grows here with hardy Begonia.

C. ‘Florida Moonlight’ grows here with hardy Begonia grandis.

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These were about the size of a half dollar, and it was warm enough to plant them directly outside.  After nearly a month in the ground, they are just beginning to send up leaves now.  I have high hopes that they will fill out and look stunning by August.

The earliest tubers to go out, in May, all survived, despite our cool nights lasting well into early summer. After a slow start,  they are responding to our heat and making lots of new leaves.  Watching each huge new leaf unroll brings its own pleasure!  Our hot, humid summers offer the tropical climate these lovely beauties crave.

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This is a single plant from one of those 'baked potato' sized tubers. The photo was taken after 6 this evening, and you can see how bright the sun remained even late in the afternoon.

This Caladium  is a single plant from one of those ‘baked potato’ sized tubers. The photo was taken after 6 this evening, and you can see how bright the sun remained even late in the day.

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Grown in dappled shade, Caladiums never scorch or wilt.  Deer and rabbits rarely touch them, as their leaves are mildly poisonous to eat.  Their color is as bright as any flower, and far more long lasting and reliable.  They beautifully fill a pot or bed.

They are neat and require very little care, beyond keeping them watered when there is a break in the summer rain.  Caladiums are raised on sandy soils in Florida, but they appreciate compost in their soil, and a little feeding to keep them going strong.

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Here is the same plant, photographed a few hours later.

Here is the same plant, photographed a few hours later.  I love these wildly patterned leaves of C. ‘Lance Wharton’!

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New Caladium varieties are introduced each year.  Some of the newer ones are the “Florida” series, bred at the University of Florida after 1988, to give better leaf production, larger tubers and to tolerate more direct sun.  Look for those Caladiums with ‘Florida’ in their name, such as C. Florida Red Ruffles and C. Florida Fantasy if you want an improved, relatively sun tolerant Caladium plant.

Dr. Robert Hartman, CEO of Classic Caladiums in Zolfo Springs and Avon Park, FL; is introducing several exciting new, improved Caladium varieties each year.  Most of these new varieties can tolerate full sun with proper hydration.  I am looking forward to growing a few of these varieties in the coming months, and will post photos as they grow.  One in particular, a 2016 introduction called C. ‘Desert Sunset’ has piqued my interest for its beautiful salmon and copper coloring and ruffled form.

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July 7, 2016 Evening garden 013

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I like to mix Caladiums with ferns and Begonias.  I tend to use them as an accent plant in a pot or bed.  Others may prefer to grow a solid bed of Caladiums for a massed effect.  Use low ferns, Ajuga, Oxalis, Vinca, or other low ground cover plants to fill in the bed.  You can select Caladium varieties by size, with heights between just a few inches and several feet.  As with most plants, they tend to grow taller in the shade, and more compact in the sun.

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July 7, 2016 Evening garden 014

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Two other plants, often confused with Caladiums, are also called ‘elephant ears.’  Also tropical, Colocasia and Alocasia have similar leaf shapes, but different coloration and texture. All three of these bloom, but those blooms are insignificant.  Many gardeners simply cut them away.  ‘Elephant ears’ are all grown for their beautiful leaves.

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Alocosia have a thicker, waxier leaf than Caladium. Often, their leaf tips point up towards the sky.

Alocosia have a thicker, waxier leaf than Caladium. Often, their leaf tips point up towards the sky.

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All ‘elephant ears’ love warmth, and nearly all must be brought inside before frost.  They may be dug up and the tubers stored, or they may be kept in pots indoors through the winter.  But only a few cultivars of Colocasia are hardy in our Zone 7.

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Colocasia generally have the largest of the 'elephant ear' leaves. This is C. 'Pink China,' and has proven hardy in our Zone 7 garden. This prolific plant spreads each season and may be easily transplanted.

Colocasia generally have the largest of the ‘elephant ear’ leaves. This is C. ‘Pink China,’ and has proven hardy in our Zone 7 garden.  C. ‘Mojito,’ behind, is supposed to be hardy here, but overwintered in our basement.  These prolific plants spread each season and may be easily transplanted.

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These gorgeous tropical plants, with their heart shaped leaves, are one of my true loves of summer.

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C. 'White Queen'

C. ‘White Queen’

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Big, bold, surprisingly beautiful; elephant ears fill the garden with mass, texture, and movement as they swish and sway in the breeze.  Carefree and attractive, rely on them to look great during the heat of summer.

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July 7, 2016 Caladiums 011

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Woodland Gnome 2016
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July 7, 2016 Evening garden 011

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