Elephant ears is the common name for a group of tropical perennial plants grown for their large, heart-shaped leaves. Most of these herbaceous species in the arum or aroid family (Araceae) that are offered as ornamentals belong to the genera Colocasia, Alocasia, and Xanthosoma, although there are others that have similar appearance and growth habits. The most common one is Colocasia esculenta, also known as taro.
Colocasia esculenta plants are invasive in tropical areas. They are also toxic to animals and humans. The first two genera are native to tropical southern Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea, parts of Australia, or the Pacific Islands, while Xanthosoma is native to tropical America. Many of the species have long been grown for the edible starchy corms or tubers as an important staple food in tropical regions.
Table of Contents
1 - 8 feet
1 - 6 feet
5.5 - 7.0
Types of Elephant Ear
There are four types of plants called elephant ears: Colocasia, Caladium, Alocasia and Xanthosoma.
Colocasia – The first of the elephant ear plant types is Colocasia. Colocasia is native to swampy areas of Asia and spans 200 species. Leaves may grow up to 3 feet (1 m.) in length and 2 feet (0.5 m.) across. The heart-shaped leaves can reach 8 feet (2.5 m.) in height on long rigid petioles.
Caladium – Caladium is the name for common elephant ear plants found in nurseries. These foliage plants are perennial and can be hardy down to USDA zone 8. This much smaller elephant ear species only reaches 2 feet (0.5 m.) in height with foliage measuring 8 to 12 inches (20-30.5 cm.) in length.
Alocasia – Alocasia produces calla lily like blooms on 6-foot (2 m.) tall plants with arrow-shaped foliage.
Xanthosoma – Xanthosoma need temperatures consistently over 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 C.). The arrow-shaped blades typically have decorative veins. Xanthosoma is not commonly cultivated.
Plant taxonomy classifies Colocasia esculenta or taro as the most common species. Plants of the Alocasia genus and Xanthosoma genus also have some popular varieties:
‘Black Magic’: This was the first black cultivar with dusty purple-black leaves. The leaves fold upwards slightly.
‘Blue Hawaii’: This member of Royal Hawaiian Series has medium green leaves with dark purple-black veins with maroon undersides.
‘Coal Miner’: This is similar to ‘Illustris’ but is much earlier, does not spread underground as vigorously, the background leaf color is darker, and the leaves have a velvety patina when they first emerge.
‘Coffee Cups’: This is a robust hybrid variety with smaller leaves that fold upward to form a cup shape.
‘Illustris’: Categorized as C. esculenta var. antiquorum, this plant has dark green matte leaves with bright green veins. The plants spread by underground runners rather than tubers or corms.
‘Lime Zinger’: This plant is a brilliant chartreuse green cultivar in the Xanthosoma genus.
'Mojito’: This variety features dull green leaves that are irregularly flecked, speckled, and streaked with black.
‘Burgundy Stem’: This is a tall cultivar with deep purple petioles topped with big green leaves with a slight purple tinge.
‘Hilo Beauty’: This is a small variety (about a foot tall) of Alocasia with irregular yellow or cream flecks on the dark green leaves.
‘Jet Black Wonder’: It has light-colored veins on a black background.
‘Jack’s Giant’: It has rich blue-green leaves with chartreuse edges. It grows to 7 feet tall.
‘Diamond Head’: It has 2 ½-feet long rippled, heart-shaped, purple to black leaves.
‘Pink China’: It has green leaves on pinkish stems. It is one of the hardiest elephant ears.
‘Fontanesii’: It is a tall hybrid with dark green leaves on purple stems.
‘Elena’: It has chartreuse leaves with cream-colored petioles that change to purple where they join the leaf to the stalk.
‘Nancy’s Revenge’: The leaves change as the season progresses, starting out all green, then developing butter yellow color in the center at the onset of flowering. The color leaks from the center down the main vein into the surrounding blade to eventually form an oval shape.
‘Stingray’: It is an Alocasia with a distinct tail on the end of the leaf.
‘Yellow Splash’: It is a yellow and green variegated type heavily splashed with creamy yellow patterns.
Planting Elephant Ear
When to Plant
Elephant ears are planted in spring after any danger of frost has passed. The tubers will not grow until the soil is warm, so don't plant them until the soil temperature is at least 65ºF. In northern climates this will be early June. To get a jump on the season, elephant ears may be started in pots indoors, 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to put them outside. Grow them under lights or in a warm, sunny window.
Where to Plant Elephant Ears
Containers, Patios and Decks: Elephant ears are a perfect solution for shady porches, decks and other places around your home that are not in full sun. The large, heart-shaped leaves add a tropical feel to pools, spas and water gardens.
Walls and Fences: Planting elephant ears next to a wall or fence protects the plants from wind and too much sun. It also puts their big leaves to work, softening straight lines and adding visual interest to blank walls.
Entryways: Add a "wow" element to your front door by planting elephant ears in large containers. They make a big statement and always impress guests. Plant them on their own or pair them with other plants such as caladiums or coleus.
Screening: The broad leaves and tall stems of elephant ears can be used to screen an unwanted view or define a space in your garden. Planting them along a property line or around an outdoor living area will make your yard feel more private.
Indoor Houseplant: Upright elephant ears can also be grown indoors as long the plants get enough light and water. Their attractive foliage can be an exciting feature all year round.
How to Plant Elephant Ears
Find a spot with medium to wet soil in part shade or filtered sun. Elephant ear will struggle in full sun and dry soil.
Pick a location protected from strong winds. The large leaves can be damaged by heavy gusts.
Add aged manure or compost to the soil before planting.
Dig a hole 2 to 4 times larger than the tuber.
Plant the tuber so it sits 1 to 2 inches below the soil.
Elephant ears grow best when they’re planted close to the surface.
The plant can also be grown in a pond with up to 6” of standing water.
How to Grow Elephant Ear From Seed
Sprinkle elephant ear seeds on the top of a seed starting mix. Gently sprinkle some seed starting mix on top of that—do not fully cover with the soil mix. Spray the top of the soil with a misting bottle and keep the mix damp but not soggy. Seedlings can appear as soon as three weeks or as late as eight weeks. Keep the tray in a location with indirect but bright light.
How to Get Elephant Ear to Bloom
Elephant ears will only bloom when they reach maturity (usually by the third growing season) and if they have perfect growing conditions. Most gardeners remove any flowers that form so all the energy can go into producing more attractive leaves. If you leave the flowers on the plant, they will develop into clusters of red, yellow, or orange berries. The flowers have a sweet-smelling aroma, attractive to bees and other pollinators. Alocasia odora has pale peach blooms that have a delightful, strong fragrance at night. Their flowers have a spathe and spadix with hundreds of tiny flowers similar to a calla lily. The best way to get an elephant ear to bloom is to bring an indoor plant outdoors in the spring after the threat of frost is gone, fertilize the plant, and place it in a warm, partial sun location with ample water.
Elephant Ear Care
Grow elephant ears in fertile, loamy soil that is slightly acidic in partial shade. As a native wetland plant, elephant ears like a lot of water. This makes them a good choice for wet areas where gardeners usually have trouble finding suitable plants. Some varieties are well suited for planting in large containers.
Plant them when the soil is well warmed—a nod to their tropical origin. Depending on the species, elephant ears grow from tuberous roots (Colocasia spp.) or a corm (Alocasia and Xanthosoma spp.), which is a hard swollen stem structure. Once they sprout, elephant ears require little tending, other than regular feeding with a fertilizer high in nitrogen. Make sure they stay well-watered during dry spells.
Elephant ears can be planted in full sun to part shade, but it prefers growing in a part shade or dappled sun location. Cultivars with darker leaves need more sun to maintain their color.
Elephant ears grow best in a rich, humusy soil that is moist to the point of being wet. This plant is ideal for boggy areas, marshes, swampland, or around water gardens.
Keep elephant ear plants consistently moist. They can even survive nicely in 6 inches of standing water, although it is best to water the plant when the soil is wet and not soggy and never allow the soil to dry out thoroughly. In some climates—especially if growing in containers—these plants will need water daily or several times per day. Let the top of the soil be your guide. It should feel moist; if it's not, add water until it is.
Temperature and Humidity
Elephant ears are tropical plants that do best in circumstances that mimic their native habitat. They will be evergreen in USDA zone 10 or slightly warmer but will likely die back to the ground in zones 8 to 9, returning in the spring. This plant thrives in humidity, needing moisture constantly. In colder zones, the plant will die unless the tubers, corms, or root structures are dug up and stored for the winter.
Like many large-leaved tropical plants, elephant ears are heavy feeders. Apply a water-soluble high-nitrogen fertilizer every two to three weeks.
Pruning and Propagating Elephant Ear
These plants continue to produce new leaves throughout the growing season. As the old leaves die, remove them to keep the plant looking vibrant. If you're in zone 8 and expect frosty conditions, winter pruning is necessary to keep your plant alive after the winter season. Cut back an elephant ear plant two or three days after the first killing frost when the foliage turns brown. Sterilize sharp pruning shears and don gloves. Snip off the leaves near the base of the plant, leaving about 2 inches above the ground. Make clean, straight cuts, do not rip or tear.
Propagating Elephant Ear
The most effective way of propagating elephant ear is by division at the end of the growing season in the fall. The most common variety of elephant ear, Colocasia esculenta, grows from corms, and the Alocasia and Xanthosoma species of elephant ear grow from hard, corm-like roots or rhizomes. Division helps keep the plant from overcrowding in one spot and refreshes the plant's growth. Alocasia and Xanthosoma are sometimes propagated by collecting and planting seeds from the flowers, though this is time-consuming, difficult, and inconsistent. Seeds collected from hybrid plants do not produce true to the parent. Here's how to multiply your plant using division:
Gather gloves, sterile knife, tray or plate, newspaper or butcher's paper, and a paper bag or cardboard box.
At the end of the growing season, dig up the tuber or corm. Wear gloves to protect your skin from the sap.
With a sharp, sterile knife, carefully divide the tuber into clumps, each with at least one growth node. Cut through the tuber or corm, allow the cut to dry, and scab over while sitting on a tray or plate. Keep it dry, at room temperature, and out of direct sun.
After about a week, wrap the root piece in paper and store it in a dry, cool spot (above freezing temperatures) in a box or sturdy paper bag until the following spring after the threat of frost is over. If you live in a warm climate, you can replant the tuber or rhizome pieces in the garden or a container immediately after division. If overwintering the root piece, check the root piece for rot every few weeks. If it blackens or becomes mushy, discard it.
Plant tuber-type roots with the growth nodes facing up. Replant corm or rhizome-type roots with the pointy side up, about 4 inches deep. Space plants well apart—at least 2 feet for smaller cultivars, 4 feet for larger varieties.
Potting and Repotting Elephant Ear
Elephant ear is sometimes grown in large containers as patio plants, but it is essential to use a potting mix with a lot of organic matter that helps holds moisture. Container plants require considerably more watering than in-ground plants; you may even need to water them twice daily in warm weather. Use the largest pots that are practical to keep in scale with the huge leaves because large-volume containers are easier to keep moist. Consider using perlite to help aerate the soil, assist with drainage, and use containers with ample drainage holes—these plants like moist soil.
In colder climates, you can dig up the corms or tuber before the first frost and keep them in a cool (but not freezing) basement or garage. The roots are overwintered the same way as canna bulbs and dahlia tubers. After pulling up the rooting structure, lay it out for a week in a warm or room temperature location with air circulation to dry out the tuber. Airing it out will discourage rot or decomposition. Wrap the root piece in paper and place it in a box. Check on it periodically to make sure it's not rotting. If you have more than one, wrap them each separately. Once the threat of frost is over, replant them in the spring.
Pests and Plant Diseases
The most common elephant ear plant disease is fungal leaf blight. It can be treated if caught early. If the plant is infected with this fungus, it can cause tell-tale lesions that may ooze fluid and turn purple or yellowish. It can also cause fuzzy growth on the leaves. If left alone, it can infect the entire plant. To treat it, remove collapsed leaves. Another fungus, Phyllosticta, can cause small speckled leaf spots or blotches. To treat both conditions, apply a copper-based fungicide. Also, avoid watering the leaves, irrigate the soil only.
Pythium rot can cause plants to die and is often the result of soil remaining saturated for several days or weeks. It may appear as yellowing in spots or distinct patches on the leaves or stem. If you pull the root structure out of the ground, the root will appear dark and greasy. A plant with this kind of root rot is not salvageable. Pull it out entirely. If your plant was in a container, discard all the infected soil and sterilize the pot.
Spider mites like this plant for their shade potential and the texture of their leaves. Spider mite damage looks like tiny yellow or brown spots on the leaves. An infestation can lead to leaf drop and stunted growth. Another sign of spider mites is webbing found on the plant. To get rid of spider mites, you can use a steady stream of water from a hose to wash them off. Apply an insecticidal soap or horticultural oil as organic methods to keep them away.
Common Problems With Elephant Ear
Elephant ears are easy to grow, fast-growers, and aren't susceptible to many problems. However, since they're water lovers, fungal infections are their biggest threat.
Leaves Start Yellowing
If the leaves turn yellow, it could mean they need more or less sunlight, water, or fertilizer. Alternatively, the plant may be going dormant for the season. Cut back the yellow leaves and wait for them to return next spring.
Elephant ears droop if light, water, or fertilizer levels are off. Large leaves can also droop if they become too heavy, and you can remedy their weightiness with stakes to support the plants. Plants will also decline if temperatures are too cold for them.
Stunted Leaves or Pale Leaves
Often deformed, smaller, or pale leaves signify that your plant needs more nutrients, light, or water. Move your plant, provide more water, or provide fertilizer.
Wilting is a sign that the plant is getting too much sun, heat exposure, and not enough water. Consider moving your plant to a shadier spot and schedule its watering more frequently.
Elephant Ear Plant Benefits
Colocasia leaves are incredibly nutritious. They are high in protein and fibre packing nearly 5 grams of protein and 4 grams of fibre per 100 grams of leaf. They also boast an impressive list of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, vitamin C, B vitamins, folate, and vitamins A, E and K. As a result, these leaves are full of antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory; thought to help prevent cancers, lower blood pressure, improve eye health, boost immunity, aid digestion, reduce risk of anemia and are considered neuroprotective.
Alocasia (Giant taro) roots are used to treat swollen lymph glands. The leaves and rhizomes are collected throughout the year. The leaves are used fresh. The rhizomes are boiled hard to reduce itching compounds, then sun·dried or heat·dried. The leaves and the rhizome are used in the treatment of impetigo, furunculosis, phlegmon and snake·bite in the form of a liquid extract for administration by mouth, and their residue is used for poulticing. They are also used in treating colic and vomiting, in a daily dose of 10 to 20g of dried rhizome in the form of a decoction.
There are a number of uses for elephant ears in the garden. These plants come in a variety of colors and sizes. Elephant ear plants can be used as background plants, ground covers, or edging, especially around ponds, along walkways, or patio enclosures. Their most common use, however, is as an accent or focal point. Many are even well adapted to growing in containers.
Colocasia leaves - The taste is similar to spinach once cooked. Due to the high oxalate content in the leaves, however, do be sure to cook the leaves thoroughly before consuming.
Alocasia (Giant taro) - The rhizomes, stems and leaves, mainly of A. macrorrhizos , are used as food, vegetable and forage. The rhizome is a source of very white, easily digested starch or flour. Several species are important as ornamentals.
Xanthosoma - These cormels (like the corm) are rich in starch. Their taste has been described as earthy and nutty, and they are a common ingredient in soups and stews. They may also be eaten grilled, fried, or puréed. The young, unfurled leaves of some varieties can be eaten as boiled leafy vegetables or used in soups and stews, such as the Caribbean callaloo.