No matter where you go this summer the tropical look will be hot, and one of the key ingredients for this Caribbean-style garden is the elephant ear, the drama queen of the landscape.
With leaves that defy logic for their size and proportion vs. other plants, it’s not hard to see why this plant is so loved by Southern gardeners. It is not uncommon to see 6-foot tall plants with 3-foot leaves on petioles reaching 4 feet.
Thanks to this raging popularity, garden centers now have choices in varieties, including Colocasia, Alocasia and Xanthosoma. Varieties of the Colocasia esculenta seem to be the ones most-gardeners try first. The giant sized green-leafed form is the most common, while the dark purple selection called Black Magic is the most sought after.
One of my other closely related favorites is the Imperial Taro, also sold under the names of Illustris or Antiquorum. Its leaves are not quite as large but have dark burgundy to black in between the veins, giving it a special flare.
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Alocasia macrorrhizos, or giant taro, is the selection many call the upright elephant ear. It usually allows you to see both sides of the somewhat wavy leaves. These clumps and leaves are monolithic in size and have the ability to transform the mundane landscape into one commanding attention. Mostly we see the typical generic giant green selection and a variegated form, but the Borneo Giant is like a sequoia in comparison. We have our uprights partnered with Easter lilies, which is quite stunning.
In recent years it is lime-green elephant ear varieties that seem to have captured the imagination of the garden world. This is where Elena rises to the occasion. Rise might be a good descriptor as it can form big clumps reaching 4 to 6 feet in height and exhibiting a riotous lime green or chartreuse color. Lime green is still at the top of the charts for must have color in the garden whether it be shade or sun.
Elena is an easy-to-grow selection tolerating full sun as long as the water supply is there. It will also spread in these moist sites. Elena is known as known botanically as Colocasia esculenta the same genus species as Black Magic mentioned above. It also has a little purple in the veins near the center of the leaf.
The other lime-green elephant ear that is rising in popularity is Lime Zinger. It on the other hand is known botanically as Xanthosoma aurea. It can get much taller with leaves a little wider. Both Elena and Lime Zinger are cold hardy to the North Carolina Piedmont region and will return as long as they don’t sit in wet winter soggy soil.
Near the entrance to my home in Mississippi, I grew Elena partnered with SunPatiens, orange New Guinea impatiens and King Tut papyrus that also gives an exotic tropical but fine textured look. In my backyard, I had Lime Zinger with an assortment of gingers that offer a good contrast in differing foliage color and texture. All elephant ears partner well with bananas.
Your success with elephant ears will depend onyour soil preparation. The soil should be fertile and well drained, especially for winter survival. It is the organic matter that will give you the needed fertility and improvement of aeration. It will also help those of you with sandier soil with its ability to hold water and nutrients.
Regardless of your choice, feed your elephant ears monthly with light applications of fertilizer, and keep them well mulched. If you have an established clump, start feeding with the emergence of new growth in the spring. These are really low-maintenance plants: Just remove tattered or unattractive leaves to keep them looking their best.
Going to the Caribbean may not be feasible, but thanks to plants like elephant ears, our gardens can look like Jamaica or Martinique. All you will need is jerked chicken on the grill.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens. Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru