Elephant ears make interesting addition to garden bed

Ted Manzer column logo

ted manzer


By Ted Manzer

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Elephant ears are that plant with the huge heart-shaped leaves that look like they belong in a tropical rainforest. That’s probably because they do. They are native to Southeast Asia.

These peace lily and caladium relatives are one of those plants that can be perennial, but usually it takes some ingenuity to get them to return year after year. Leaves of some types can be over 2 feet across and 3 feet long, so they can be quite dramatic.

Most species of that Arum family are tropical, but there are exceptions. Growing up in Maine, I regularly encountered a plant called skunk cabbage. It is an elephant ear relative that is very winter hardy.

Just as there is variation about hardiness of all Arum family plants, there are considerable differences concerning specific types of elephant ears. Some may be left in the ground with no additional protective mulch and come back year after year.

Dwarf elephant ears are usually less winter hardy than the giant types. These should either be treated as annuals or dug up and stored until spring.

Some people like to plant elephant ears in large pots and bring them inside for the winter. They grow well in a sunny window but require quite a bit of space. They are also easily mutilated by pets, so they might look a little ragged when taken outside in the spring.

If planted directly outdoors, elephant ears grow best in well-drained but moist soils and partial shade to full sun. We are in zone 8, which is at the limit of hardiness for even the giant types.

For those concerned about their plants dying over the winter, I suggest cutting the plants back after a frost and digging up the underground structures. Let the plants dry down before storing and keep them in the garage or another cool dry place for the winter. If this method is used, it is important not to replant them until all danger of frost has passed in the spring.

Most people refer to these fleshy structures as bulbs, but they are corms, much like on gladiolus. Anatomically, these corms more closely resemble the tubers of potatoes than they do bulbs.

By the way, corms of one type are edible and grown for food production throughout their natural range. This is a group of plants referred to as taro, and they are cooked before they can be consumed. People eat cooked taro leaves too.

Young common elephant ear corms may be cooked and eaten by some people, but many suffer mouth irritation as plants contain calcium oxalate. Leaves should not be consumed raw or cooked. In fact, they can be somewhat toxic to pets. Several references refer to elephant ears as being readily consumed, but I suspect many of these are confusing elephant ears with taro. They are very similar looking.

Many folks like to incorporate their landscape with that tropical look. If you are one of those people, elephant ears might be for you.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.