Variegated elephant ears
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Elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) are tropical plants with huge leaves that do resemble an elephant's ears. Leaves may be 2 to 3 feet long and 1 to 2 feet wide on 3-foot tall stems. They grow from corms, not true bulbs. A corm is a swollen underground stem base where the plant stores food. The corms are taro, an important food crop in many areas of the world. The starchy taro is used in Hawaiian poi and many Asian dishes. In colder climates north of Zone 8, elephant ear corms are treated as annuals. The corms must be dug up in the fall and stored in a cool place over the winter, as frost or freezing will kill the plant.
Planting and Summer Care Outdoors
Choose a shady, moist place to plant elephant ears. They are water-loving tropicals, and shady, boggy areas that present problems for other plants are good places to grow elephant ears.
Add a 1-gallon bucket of compost per corm to the planting site and till it in well. Elephant ears prefer slightly acid soil, but they will tolerate a range of soil pH if it is fertile and moist.
Plant each corm deep enough to barely cover the top. Keep them well watered. Space corms 3 to 4 feet apart. Mulch heavily to retain moisture.
For a palm tree effect, prune away the side shoots as they appear, leaving one trunk-like stalk with leaves at the top. For bushy growth, leave the side shoots.
Add more compost around each plant every three to four weeks and work it into the soil gently. Elephant ears are heavy feeders, and they need lots of nitrogen for optimum leaf production. Fish emulsion fertilizer will help if your plants do not produce plenty of leaves. Be sure they are getting plenty of water.
Six to eight months after planting elephant ears, the side tubers (called eddos) are ready to be eaten. Use them like potatoes. They must be cooked to remove toxic properties of the calcium oxalate they contain. Leaves also may be cooked and eaten like spinach.
Winter Care in Cold Climates
Before the first frost, lift the plants with a digging fork, being careful to get as many roots as possible. You can pot the plants and bring them indoors, or clean the tubers and corms to store until spring.
Pot the plants in large containers that are 6 to 8 inches wider than the root balls. Use new potting soil and stake plants that are tall or top-heavy, if necessary. Provide plenty of water and humidity if you grow elephant ears indoors.
To store the corms, clean them off and spread them out to dry. Allow them to dry/cure for one to two weeks in a cool, dark place. Trim off leaves and remove cormels (tiny side corms) and any old corm tissue that may still be attached at the bottom.
Keep corms in plastic bags with holes punched in them to allow some air circulation. Store in a cool, dark place where they will not freeze.
Do not allow corms to shrivel or dry out. Inspect corms regularly and lightly spray water in the bags, if necessary, to maintain moisture.
About this Author
Fern Fischer is a freelance writer with more than 35 years' experience. Her work has been published in various print and online publications. She specializes in organic gardening, health, rural lifestyle, home and family articles. Fischer also writes about quilting and sewing, and she professionally restores antique quilts to preserve these historical pieces of women's art.