Elephant ears are tropical perennial plants grown for the appeal of the large leaves rather than for their flowers. Elephant ear is the common name is used for several species in three plant genera—Colocasia, Alocasis, and Xanthosoma. The most commonly grown plant Colocasia esculenta, also known as taro. Whatever the species, elephant ears are dramatic, exotic plants with huge heart-shaped leaves, used as accent plants or as a feature in tropical-themed water or bog gardens. 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). Depending on species, elephant ears grow from tuberous roots (Colocasia spp.) or a hard swollen stem structure known as a corm (Alocasis and Xanthosoma spp.)
In warm zones (8 and above) the root can be left in the ground as a perennial, while in colder zones the plants are either treated as annuals, discarded at the end of the season, or dug up and stored indoors for planting the following spring. In any landscape, elephant ears provide an infusion of tropical atmosphere. Some varieties are well suited for planting in large containers.
These fast-growing plants that will achieve their full size within two months are generally planted in the spring after all danger of frost has passed and soil temperatures have warmed to at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit. They can also be planted later, into early summer.
|Botanical Name||Colocasia, Alocasis, Xanthosoma spp.,|
|Common Name||Elephant ear, taro|
|Plant Type||Tropical perennial|
|Mature Size||3–8 feet tall, similar spread; smaller in colder climates|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Rich, humusy, damp to wet soil|
|Soil pH||5.5 to 7.0 (acidic to neutral)|
|Bloom Time||Rarely flowers|
|Hardiness Zones||8–11 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Tropical eastern Asia, Americas|
|Toxicity||Leaves and sap contain a skin irritant|
Elephant Ear Care
Grow elephant ears in slightly acidic soil 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.
Plant them when the soil is well warmed, as befits their tropical origin. Tuber-type roots should be planted with the growth nodes facing up; corm types with the pointy side up, about 5 inches deep. Space plants well apart—2 feet for smaller cultivars, 4 feet for larger varieties. 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.
In colder climates, you can dig up the corms before first frost and keep them in a cool (but not freezing) basement or garage, similar to the way canna bulbs and dahlia tubers are overwintered. While they are in storage, make sure the corms neither rot nor totally dry out. Replant them in spring when the danger of frost has passed.
Watch Now: Everything You Need to Know about Elephant Ears
Elephant ears can be planted in full sun to part shade, but the best performance will come in a part shade or filtered sun location.
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 or around water gardens.
Keep elephant ear plants consistently moist. They will survive nicely even if covered by as much as 6 inches of standing water. In other garden locations, never allow the soil to dry out fully. In some climates—and when growing in containers—this means watering daily.
Temperature and Humidity
Elephant ears are tropical plants that do best in circumstances that mimic their native habitat. They will be evergreen in USDA zones 10 to 11, but will likely die back to the ground in zones 8 to 9 to return in the spring. In colder zones, they will perish unless the tubers 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 fertilier every two to three weeks
Is Elephant Ear Toxic?
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. The roots (known as taro root) and the leaves are both edible.
However, the leaves need to be cooked before they are consumed. Raw leaves contain needle-like calcium oxalate crystals, which can irritate the skin, including the mouth and throat if they are consumed. Pets that chew on the leaves may show excessive salivation and mouth irritation. The sap from the plant can also be a skin irritant.
Elephant Ear Varieties
Plant taxonomy classifies the most widely known elephant ear, also called taro, as Colocasia esculenta. But plants of the Alocasia genus and Xanthosoma genus can also be known as elephant ears.
Some popular varieties of elephant ear include:
- ‘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.
- ‘Coffee Cups’: This is a robust hybrid variety with smaller leaves that fold upward to form a cup shape.
- ‘Illustris’: Categorized as C. eculenta 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 splotched, speckled, and streaked with black.
- 'Yellow Splash': This plant has variegated leaves of yellow and green, similar to the pothos plant commonly used as a houseplant.
These plants continue to produce new leaves throughout the growing season. As the old leaves die, remove them to keep the plant looking vibrant.
Propagating Elephant Ears
The common variety of elephant ear, Colocasia esculenta, grows from tuberous roots that are easy to propagate by division. At the end of the growing season, dig up the tuber. Wearing gloves to protect your skin from the sap, carefully divide the tuber into clumps, each with at least one growth node. Store the tubers for the winter, then replant the following spring (in warm climates, they can be replanted immediately).
Alocasis and Xanthosoma species of elephant ear grow from hard corm-like roots that can't be divided. These plants are sometimes propagated by collecting and planting seeds from the flowers, though this is time-consuming and difficult.
Potting and Repotting Elephant Ears
Elephant ears are sometimes grown in large containers as patio plants, but it is important to use a potting mix with a lot of organic matter that holds moisture. Remember that container plants will 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, both to keep in scale with the huge leaves and because large-volume containers are easier to keep moist.
Moon, J.M, Lee, B.K, Chun, B.J. Toxicities of Raw Alocasia Odora. Human and Experimental Toxicology, 30,10,1720-3, 2011, doi:10.1177/0960327110393760