Elephant ears are tropical perennial plants grown for the appeal of their large leaves rather than their flowers. Elephant ear is the common name for several species in three plant genera—Colocasia, Alocasia, and Xanthosoma. The most common one is Colocasia esculenta, also known as taro. These fast-growing plants will achieve their full size within two months and are generally planted in the spring after all danger of frost has passed and soil temperatures have warmed to at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also plant them later in early summer.
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. Their leaves can reach 3 feet long and 2 feet wide in the tropics; in colder climates, they will remain smaller but still have impressive leaves. In warm zones (8 and above), the plant 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. Colocasia esculenta plants are invasive in tropical areas. They are also toxic to animals and humans.
|Common Name||Elephant ear, taro, coco yam|
|Botanical Name||Colocasia, Alocasia, Xanthosoma spp.|
|Plant Type||Tropical perennial|
|Mature Size||3–6 feet tall, similar spread; smaller in colder climates|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil pH||Acidic (5.5 to 7.0)|
|Bloom Time||Late spring to early fall (rarely flowers)|
|Hardiness Zones||8–10 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Asia, Australia, Central America, South America, Africa|
|Toxicity||Toxic to pets and humans|
Watch Now: Everything You Need to Know about Elephant Ears
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.
Colocasia esculenta is commonly known as coco yam or wild taro. It comes from Africa but is listed as an invasive species in California, Florida, Alabama, George, and South Carolina. It invades wetlands, swamps, blackwater streams and stifles native plants by hogging their sun, water, and nutrients.
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.
Types of Elephant Ear
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.
- ‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Common Pests & 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.
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.
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.
Can elephant ear grow indoors?
Elephant ear can be brought indoors and grown as houseplants as long as they are in a bright spot with indirect light, as direct sun will burn the leaves. Keep the soil consistently moist and mist the plant to provide humidity.
Where should I place elephant ear in my house?
Put the plant near a bright, sunny window (south or west exposure) but not directly in the windowsill.
What are alternatives to elephant ear?
Since elephant ear is toxic and invasive in some locations, a good alternative similar to elephant ear is the banana plant. They have a similarly lush, tropical look and are nontoxic.
Elephant Ears (Colocasia, Alocasia, and Xanthosoma). University of Wisconsin - Madison, Division of Horticulture Extension.
Coco yam, wild taro: colocasia esculenta (Arales: araceae). Invasive plant Atlas of the United States.
Nath, V.S., Sankar, M.S.A., Hegde, V.M. et al. Analysis of genetic diversity in Phytophthora colocasiae causing leaf blight of taro (Colocasia esculenta) using AFLP and RAPD markers. Ann Microbiol, vol. 64, pp. 185–197, 2014. doi:10.1007/s13213-013-0651-8
Taro Diseases. Department of Plant Pathology University of Hawaii - Kauai Branch Station.
Pacific Pests, Pathogens and Weeds. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Non-Toxic Plants: Banana. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.