The tropical look is hot, and one of the key ingredients for a 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. I call these the droopy type. The giant sized green-leafed form is the most common, while the dark purple selection called Black Magic, with enormous leaves, 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.
Your success with elephant ears may very well lie in your soil preparation. The soil should be fertile and well drained. 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.
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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 just like Jamaica or Martinique. All you will need is jerked chicken on the grill.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”