Growing Elephant Ear Plants

Foliage Plant That Gives Your Garden a Tropical Feel

Image showing how elephant ears (black) contrast in texture with cosmos.
Colocasia esculenta 'Illustris' is one of the elephant ears with a lot of black in its leaves. David Beaulieu

Elephant ears are tropical foliage plants with large, dark green leaves. In USDA plant hardiness zone 8 and above, elephant ears can be left outside year-round. They are not native to Florida but have become naturalized in some wetland areas in the southern half of the state and are widespread. In fact, they are considered invasive there. In cold climates, the plants are treated as annuals, providing an infusion of tropical landscaping, albeit short-lived. But they can be brought indoors for winter to extend their lives.

Taxonomy and Botany of Elephant Ears

Plant taxonomy classifies the most widely known elephant ear plants, or "taro," as Colocasia esculenta. But plants of the Alocasia genus and of the Xanthosoma genus can go by the same common name, as well. A number of cultivars also exist, including types with dark leaves (for example, C. esculenta 'Black Magic'), placing them among the so-called "black plants."

Elephant ear plants grow from a swollen stem similar to a bulb but known as a corm. They are herbaceous perennials in warm climates. Elephant ears' species name, esculentia, is the same term that gives us the word "esculent," meaning edible. In fact, elephant ears are an important food source in warm climates around the world.

Growing Elephant Ear Plants

Grow elephant ears in a slightly acidic soil in partial shade. As a wetland plant in the wild, elephant ear plants like a lot of water. This makes them a good choice for wet areas where gardeners usually have trouble finding suitable plants.

Elephant ears are heavy feeders. Fertilize them with a fertilizer high in nitrogen. These tropical foliage plants are tender but can be overwintered in cold climates. Just dig up the corms and keep them in a cool, but not freezing, basement or garage, as you would store canna bulbsdahlia tubers, etc. While they are in storage for the winter, make sure the corms neither rot nor totally dry out. Replant them in spring when the danger of frost has passed.

Uses for Elephant Ear in Landscaping

Elephant ears are grown for their large, heart-shaped leaves. While these leaves can reach 3 feet long and 2 feet wide in the tropics, in colder climates they will remain smaller (but still impressive). The plants can grow 8 feet tall in the tropics but only about 2 to 3 feet elsewhere, depending on growing conditions.

In cold climates, treat elephant ears as annuals. Take advantage of their large, attractive foliage and grow them among your other plants to provide the texture in a planting bed. Do not sell this plant short simply because it lacks showy flowers; after all, pretty leaves last longer than flowers. Elephant ear is just one example of a plant valued for the display put on by its leaves.

Their thirst for water makes elephant ears effective not only in soggy areas of the landscape but also near water features. One option is to grow them in containers as a complement to smaller plants for water gardens. With their huge, shield-shaped leaves, they create a nice contrast with another favorite used around water gardens, the horsetail, which pushes up multiple green spear-like shoots from its base.

Colorful Cultivars

A number of cultivars of elephant ears have made a name for themselves by virtue of the striking colors of their foliage. Several of these (in addition to 'Black Magic') have leaves with quite a bit of black color in them; others have yellow or chartreuse:

  • 'Black Coral': all black leaves
  • 'Illustris': black leaves with green edging and veining
  • 'Jet Black Wonder': black leaves with striking white veining
  • 'Lime Zinger': chartreuse leaves
  • 'Maui Gold': golden-chartreuse leaves
  •  'Yellow Splash': variegated leaves of yellow and green (similar to the pothos plant commonly used as a houseplant)

Elephant Ears Produce Taro Root

The corm, or root, of elephant ear, is commonly known as "taro" or "coco yam," a common food source in Hawaii and other tropical regions. According to Wilfred Lee ("Ethnobotanical Leaflets," Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1999), "Taro constituted the staff of life for the Hawaiians when Captain Cook arrived in the islands in 1778. At that time an estimated three hundred thousand people in the islands lived chiefly on poi (a fermented or unfermented taro paste), sweet potato, fish, seaweed, and a few green vegetables and fruits."

Be aware that all parts of elephant ear plants can upset the stomach if ingested without being properly cooked first. Also, the sap can be a skin irritant.