Elephant Ears
  • Botanical name: Alocasia
  • Zones: 7-10
  • Height/Spread: 2-6'/2-6'
  • Site: Filtered sun/shade

Elephant ears bring to mind lush, tropical forests, adding drama to both gardens and containers. The most recognized forms have oversized leaves, inspiring the common name elephant ears. No plant satisfies the craving for a taste of the tropics like alocasias, popular in Victorian times, they have enjoyed a rebirth in the recent craze for zonal-denial, exotic plants.

GROWING ELEPHANT EARS

Growing elephant ears is simple — they like filtered sun or shade and rich, moist soil. In warm climates, they will grow as perennials, while in cooler areas they will need to be replanted each year. Elephant ear plants, which are grown from tuberous rhizomes, can reach impressive sizes quickly.

Appeal:

High drama and bold texture are the signature benefits of showcasing alocasias in a garden or container.

Zones:

Though most alocasias are native to the humid tropical climates of Southeast Asia and are fully hardy in Zones 9 to 11, many are proving root-hardy in Zone 8 and a very few in Zone 7. Most can endure temperatures down to 30 degrees, but will go dormant with a frost or temperatures below 45. In zones colder than 8, or with less hardy alocasias, the tuberous rhizomes can be stored over winter. After a frost, cut back foliage and dig up rhizomes. Allow to dry for a few days, then store in an open container with peat moss or dry potting soil barely covering the rhizome, in a cool (45 to 55 degrees), dry place. For winter protection outdoors in Zone 8 (and Zone 7 if you’re feeling lucky), cover the base of the plant with four to 12 inches of mulch.

Exposure:

Most alocasias prefer filtered sun or shade, but some tolerate full sun. In general, green types can take higher light levels; dark-leaved ones need shade.

Soil:

Alocasias need rich soil that is moist (not saturated) but well-drained. No elephant ear likes wet feet (the big-leaved plants you see in water gardens are the close cousins colocasias, also sometimes called elephant ears), though a few are tolerant of wet conditions. A general rule is big, green alocasias are practically indestructible and can tolerate variable moisture conditions; dark-leaved types will suffer if over watered and can stay dry for several days. Alocasias are not heavy feeders. Apply a slow-release fertilizer at planting time; in a pot, a tablespoon per six-inch pot is plenty; use incrementally more for larger containers.

Care:

If foliage shows yellowing, it’s probably a micronutrient deficiency. A fertilizer with micronutrients can be applied, or sprinkle Epsom salts around the base of each plant on a monthly basis. To prevent disease problems, water alocasias in the morning so they go into the night dry. If possible, water from below at the root zone rather than from above, to keep water off the leaves.

ELEPHANT EAR VARIETIES TO TRY

Their rapid growth creates a show even during a short growing season, making them worthy as one-shot annuals of benefit to northern gardeners. But among the 70 or so species and their cultivars are alocasias small, medium and large, in leaf shapes from wide hearts to slim arrowheads, with colorful veining and textures from slick and glossy to thick and waxy. While their use in gardens has given them their current cachet, many also make good houseplants.

Swipe to view slides

Photo by: Chelsea Stickel.

1. ALOCASIA 'CALIDORA'

Big, dramatic hybrid of A. gagaena and A. odora, reaching five to seven feet tall with rounded, sky-pointing, dark green leaves nearly four feet long and three feet wide. Forms a “trunk” and thick sturdy stalks. Easy and fast in a partly sunny location.

Hardy in Zones 9 to 11.

Photo by: Pam Mclean.

2. A. MACRORRHIZA 'BLACKSTEM'

A large elephant ear, three to five feet tall, with upward-pointing, two-foot wide, dark green leaves, slightly ruffled along the edges. Leaf stalks and veins on the leaf undersides are a striking ebony purple. Prefers part sun to shade.

Hardy in Zones 9 to 11.

Photo by: Rob Cardillo.

3. A. LAUTERBACHIANA

A native of New Guinea previously included in the genus xenophya. Long, narrow, swordlike leaves, green with a bluish cast on top, mauve-purple beneath, and scalloped on the edges, are unusual for an alocasia and make a dramatic vertical statement. Can reach five feet in height.

Hardy in Zones 9 to 11, maybe Zone 8 with extra winter protection.

Photo by: Pam Mclean.

4. A. MICHOLITZIANA ‘FRYDEK’

Velvety emerald-green leaves with prominent white veins are eight to 12 inches long and arrowhead shaped. Grows two to three feet tall in the shade garden or a container. Attractive purple-banded leaf stalks add extra interest.

Hardy in Zones 9 to 11; also makes an easy houseplant.

Photo by: Pam Mclean.

5. A. ‘HILO BEAUTY’

Striking elephant ear with a mosaic pattern of green, cream and yellow on its foliage. Plant usually stays under three feet tall, with leaves one foot long and six inches wide. A robust grower for a garden with shade or filtered light. Can also be grown in a terrarium while a young plant then moved outdoors or into a container.

Root-hardy as far north as Zone 8; goes dormant at 45 degrees.

Photo by: Pam Mclean.

6. A. ‘PURPLE PRINCE’

A hybrid elephant ear with waxy, arrowhead-shaped, purplish green leaves with iridescent veining and eggplant colored undersides, one to two feet long. Can reach three to four feet. Prefers shade or bright diffused light.

Hardy in Zones 9 to 11.

Photo by: Pam Mclean.

7. A. RUGOSA

Even when you touch this elephant ear, it’s hard to believe it’s real. Thick, quilted leaves with nubby texture feel like plastic. A smaller alocasia, typically eight to 12 inches tall.

Hardy to Zone 9 outdoors but makes an easy houseplant (or terrarium specimen) since it is slow-growing and can take the low light and dry air typical of indoor situations.

DESIGNING WITH ALOCASIAS

  • Add oversized elephant ears to the perennial border for a dramatic focal point. A plant with large green leaves also gives the eye a rest amidst masses of colorful flowers.
  • Alocasias make good companions and dramatic centerpieces in mixed containers, used with other foliage plants and flowering annuals that like filtered sunlight and moist soil. Use one of the larger types in a big pot for a showstopper.
  • Purple-foliaged species combine well with silver, pink and chartreuse plants.
  • Combine elephant ears with other tropical-looking plants like cannas, bananas, variegated tapioca, caladiums and coleus for a summer jungle garden.
  • An alocasia in a container placed out in the garden can be a movable focal point, and can hide the bare spot left when spring-blooming bulbs go dormant.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Are elephant ears poisonous?

Elephant ear plants are poisonous if ingested in large quantities. The plant's leaves and stems contain oxalic acid, which can cause serious illness in children or pets. However, cooking renders the toxins harmless and many cultures have safely eaten them for years (specifically taro root, or Colocasia esculenta).

Do elephant ears bloom?

Yes, elephant ears can bloom; however, it is not common or predictable. Some gardeners report blooms (called spathes) in spring after bringing their plants outdoors and fertilizing, while other gardeners never see their elephant ears bloom. These plants are grown primarily for their tropical foliage.

Are elephant ears perennials?

Most elephant ears are perennials in Zone 9 and warmer where they will come back each summer. If gardening in cooler zones you can treat them as annuals or dig up the tubers before the first frost and keep them in a cool, dry place over winter.

When do elephant ears sprout?

Elephant ears usually sprout three to eight weeks from planting. Sprouting occurs when the weather begins to warm in spring. In warmer climates, elephant ears will sprout faster than in cooler climates. To speed up the process you can start them inside and move them outdoors once it warms up.

Why are my elephant ears turning yellow?

If the leaves of your elephant ear are turning yellow it could mean there is a problem. Try changing the amount of sunlight or water the plant gets and possibly apply a fertilizer. Alternatively, the plant may be going dormant for the season. Cut back the yellow leaves and wait for it to return next spring.

Do elephant ears spread?

Some elephant ears spread along the ground on, while others grow in clumps. Runners will quickly form a large mass of plantings, which can be good or bad. If you’re worried about elephant ears spreading out of control, choose a clumping variety.

Can elephant ears grow in full sun?

Full sun is not ideal for most elephant ears-they grow best in bright, but indirect sunlight. Too much sunlight can burn elephant ear leaves, while too little sunlight can cause yellowing. There are certain varieties that can tolerate full sun.

Can you plant elephant ears in a pot?

Yes, elephant ears can be planted in pots. Since they grow quite large, you’ll want to select a container that is roomy and stable. Container grown elephant ears can easily be moved inside when cold weather arrives and enjoyed as houseplants.

Why are my elephant ears drooping?

Elephant ears may droop because there is a problem. Try adjusting the amount of light or water or applying a fertilizer. Another reason for dropping is that the large leaves become too heavy. Staking can help support the plants and prevent dropping.

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