Those Amazing Elephant Ears

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener April 2006 issue.)

Text and photos by Chris Kelley

an image of Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger'

Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger'

Close your eyes and make a wish. A wish for beautiful foliage, superb architecture, and  WOW appeal.  If your wish comes true, you’ll be growing elephant ears, those denizens of steamy tropical and subtropical climates named Alocasia, Colocasia and Xanthosoma. We’re talking about plants with seriously beautiful leaves, here. Those amazing arrow-shaped leaves, anywhere from 6 to 36 inches in length, are an imposing and dramatic garden accent that can easily overwhelm rookie tropiholics. Seasoned veterans, long aware of their amazing versatility and easy culture, grow them in containers, water gardens, or plop them in beds of compost-enriched soil in sun and shade, where they companion beautifully with annuals like coleus and Waveâ petunias, cannas, and salvia.

And forget about the standard green-leaf variety. Nowadays you’ll see ‘ears’ sporting anything-but-green foliage. Take for instance, Alocasia ‘Purpley.’ The inky-black leaves are boldly veined in iridescent silver, with deeply notched leaf edges that brings to mind an ‘African Mask’, which it is sometimes called. ‘Purpley’ is a stunning specimen for eye-popping shade containers in combination with impatiens, ferns and begonias. Another

An image of Alocasia 'Purpley'

Alocasia 'Purpley'

beautiful variegated ear for shade is Xanthosoma lindenii ‘Magnificum.’ The lush, large leaves are emerald green, heavily striped in cream. This heat loving species does double duty as a houseplant, too. Colocasia ‘Chicago Harlequin’ offers its unique variegation in the fleshy, thick stems, pinstriped in lemony yellow and green. I have seen this beautiful ear at the Missouri Botanical Garden, artistically under-planted with aluminum plant (Pilea)  and yellow shrimp plant (Pachystachys lutea). A masterful color and pattern echo!

Gardeners with instant gratitude attitude will delight in Alocasia ‘Portora’, a giant of an ear, offering huge, glossy green leaves that unfurl from humongous clumps, a positively riveting garden focal point. This infrequently seen aroid comes alive in sun and steamy, sweltering heat, morphing into a luxurious specimen that just begs to be under-planted with a color riot of annuals and other tropical chums.   Pour on the compost and water regularly for stellar growth, and beware of envious plant gypsies (disguised as friends)  with thinly veiled solicitations upon spying this majestic ear.

Alocasia plumbea ‘Nigra’ is one of the showiest ears in the tribe. The glossy, jet-black stems spiral to four or five feet, and are crowned  with large, coppery-green leaves, tips pointed skyward. Very avant-garde! The murky purple tones are mistake proof in any color design. Combine it with the pinks of Breynia (Hawaiian Snow Bush), Coleus ‘Haines’, and Lantana ‘Pink Caprice’ for a trendy, sophisticated theme.             .

For stunning leaf color, plant the diva of all ears, Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’, a Plants of Merit selection for 2006. Bill and I discovered this treasure, our favorite ear, on a plant expedition to Ohio in 1999. Since then, anyone entering our greenhouses in spring is immediately riveted to those glowing, chartreuse-to-gold leaves. The design possibilities, be they in containers or beds, are endless on ‘Lime Zinger’.

Gardeners in this day and age are truly fortunate to have a number of these outstanding elephant ear species and cultivars laid at their feet. Picking and choosing may present a momentary dilemma, so do like Bill and I do……try them all.


Culture: Plant in mid-Spring when night temperatures are consistently above 50-55 degrees, usually early May. Ears that favor aquatic conditions will also grow well in fertile, moist soil, as do all Alocasia, Colocasia and Xanthosoma. If you choose to pot your elephant ear, a large container is a good choice, a minimum of 18 inches across and just as deep. I’ve yet to meet an elephant ear that didn’t grow well in containers. I prefer a bark-based potting mix, and use Fafard Professional Mix, or Fafard # 51.

I recommend being heavy- handed with the compost, or well-rotted manure, since ears are heavy feeders and respond with fast and voluptuous growth when the summer heat kicks in.  I also incorporate time-release fertilizer into the soil or potting soil, and apply a well-balanced liquid fertilizer, at half the recommended strength, once a week. This applies to in-ground and container plantings.

An image of Alocasia 'Hilo Beauty'

Alocasia 'Hilo Beauty'

Elephant ears for sun: Alocasia ‘Portora’, Alocasia macrorrhiza, Alocasia plumbea ‘Nigra,’ Alocasia ‘Hilo Beauty,’ Colocasia esculenta and its cultivars, ‘Black Magic’, ‘Chicago Harlequin’, ‘Nancy’s Revenge’, ‘Rhubarb’, Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’, and Xanthosoma violaceum.

Elephant ears for shade to part shade: Alocasia ‘Polly,’ Alocasia ‘Purpley,’ Alocasia ‘Frydek,’ Alocasia ‘Green Shield,’ Alocasia lowii, Colocasia fallax, Colocasia affinis ‘Jenningsii,’ and Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger.’

Chris Kelley is a self-taught gadener who, along with her husband Bill, owns Cottage Garden Nursery in Piasa, Illinois, where they grow and sell a wide variety of hardy and tender plants. She speaks and writes regularly on container gardening, tropical plants and other topics.