Elephant ears, those large-leafed plants grown from roots the size of softballs, give a tropical flair to home landscapes. They're tender perennials, hardy only in the warmest parts of the United States. In areas with colder winters, they're annuals and must be lifted in the fall or replanted every year.
Types of Elephant Ears
Elephant ears represent three genres of plants: Colocasia, Alocasia, and Xanthosoma. All plants are similar in appearance, with large, heart-shaped leaves growing up to 4 feet or more in length. Of the three, Colocasia and Alocasia are the most cold hardy, surviving in U.S. agricultural zone 8b with temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Colocasia is the most commonly found type of elephant ears since breeders have worked on the species C. esculenta to produce many colorful leaf variations. All three plants have poisonous calcium oxalate crystals in the leaves, stems, and roots, so it's best to use gloves when handling. Taro is a type of edible elephant ear but requires cooking as it's inedible in its raw state.
How and Where to Plant Elephant Ears
Elephant ears grow well in partial shade with moist soil and look best when planted in the back of borders, in large containers or around ponds. Plant them outdoors after there's no more danger of frost, or start them indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date.
Cover elephant ear roots with 2 to 3 inches of soil and give them plenty of room to spread out. Elephant ears are heavy feeders and need frequent fertilization with either a general purpose fertilizer or a plant food formulated for foliage house plants. Elephant ears regular watering, especially for container-grown specimens as their roots must remain moist.
It's best to divide overgrown plants in the spring.
Overwintering Elephant Ears
To save elephant ear roots from year to year, cut the foliage back after the first frost, leaving 2 to 4 inches of stem, and carefully dig up the roots. Put the roots in a protected, well-ventilated spot until they're dry to the touch. Store the dry roots in vermiculite, packing peanuts or shredded paper. Avoid using sand or moss as these materials hold moisture and encourage premature sprouting.
Keep the roots in a cool, dark location such as a crawlspace or basement. Discard any bulbs with soft spots or mold. Spray shriveled bulbs with water a day or two before replanting them in the spring.
Additional Elephant Ear Varieties
Besides the plain green forms, several newer cultivars of elephant ears are available. "Black Magic" grows 3 to 5 feet tall with burgundy-black foliage, while the similarly-sized "Black Stem" has green leaves with burgundy-black veins. "Illustris" is a small elephant ear; its green foliage has black markings and lime green leaf margins and veins. "Lime Zinger" grows 5 to 6 feet tall with bright chartreuse-green foliage.
- University of Florida IFAS Extension; Alocasia Spp.; Edward F. Gilman; 2009
- University of Illinois Extension: Overwintering Tropical Plants
- Iowa State University Extension; Growing Elephant Ear; James Romer; May 2005
- University of Florida IFAS Extension; Xanthosoma Sagittifolium; K. A. Langeland, et al.; 2008
- USDA Plants Database: Xanthosoma
- USDA Plants Database: Alocasia
- USDA Plants Database: Colocasia
Marie Roper began writing in 1987, preparing sales and training materials for Citadel, Inc. and then newsletters for Fullerton Garden Center. A trained horticulturist, she was a garden designer and adult-education teacher for the USDA Graduate School in Washington, D.C. Roper has a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Maryland.