Elephant Ear or Taro
Colocasia as well as its close relative, Alocacia, is a tuberous bulb plant growing from 3 - 5 feet. Generally they are grown outside in semi-tropical and tropical areas. They can be grown in northern areas but must be dug up for the winter months. This is a very showy, back border plant. They perform best in shade and must have good drainage.
They are fun plants for children because of their fast growth and large, veined leaves. (although see our note about the plants poisonous properties, below)
It will grow nicely in larger containers. Be sure to fertilize regularly. They do well in rich and organic soil.
In areas where they must be taken up for the winter, keep the tubers dry while dormant. Divide in the spring when setting out.
If in doubt as to which end is the top when planting the bulb, plant sideways.
Elephant ears are a tropical plant and like high humidity, heat, and partial to full shade. Think of them in their native habitat of a deep, tropical, jungle.
In zone 9, we rarely see these plants in the sun. Even the plentiful volunteers come up in the shade although they can adapt to light shade.
However, if you do not live in the tropics you can get away with putting them in the sun for a while each day. We have told people that morning sun is ok. Full sun would be ok, in a climate that does not get the intense sunlight of Florida and Texas.
In general, elephant ears with green leaves can take more exposure to sun than very dark leaf species.
Soil and Water
Grow in fertile, humus-rich, moist or wet, slightly acidic soil. They need plenty of water. We find it difficult to over-water these plants as they can learn to grow directly in ponds in your yard.
Elephant ear bulbs are tropical and may not survive a cold winter. Depending on what zone you are in, the bulbs should be dug up for the winter season.
In Florida, on the border of zones 8 and 9 they did well and survived year round in the ground. If we got a light freeze at night, the fronds went mushy and drooped and would not come back. However, new growth started immediately.
However, when we lived on the border of zones 7 and 8 in South Carolina they would not survive the winter in the ground except in a warm micro-climate.
An elephant ear that is in a climate that is outside and thriving all year will tend to shed its lower leaves during the year and much more in fall. The lower leaves turn yellow and fall off or just droop to the ground.
In an environment where the bulb will go dormant in the winter, this tends to happen as the plant shuts down for the winter. The leaves turn a paler green, then yellow, then bright yellow and droop and fall to the ground.
These leaves can be picked off and disposed of if they are unsightly.
One of our readers wrote, "I have elephant ears that I planted in whiskey barrels cut in half with regular topsoil and no compost that have done exceedingly well. Some are 7ft. tall with ears that measure 29"wide by 42"tall. Each pot has 11 to 15 ears in them that grew off the same bulb. THESE THINGS ARE HUGE!!!!!!!! What would be a record plant?"
We do not know what the record might be. We have seen elephant ears that are probably at least 12 feet tall. This was in Jacksonville, Florida. The books that we have for references state heights between 6-8 feet. The more the mature the bulbs are and the more protected it is, and the longer it has grown in one location, the better chance those bulbs will produce a huge elephant ear.
Elephant ear grown by Leah in Maryland
Fertilize slowly at first. We love milogranite. It never burns.
A regular fertilizing every month is good during the growing season. A balanced, 20-20-20 fertilizer is fine. A water-soluble kind such as Miracle Grow or Peters is fine.
This elephant ear was grown by James Wilkes in Georgia with his own special blend of fertilizer.
Dividing / propagating
The best way to propagate from the elephant ear is to divide the bulbs at the time of planting in the spring or early summer depending where you live.
Dividing the Elephant Ear is easy, just dig it up (dig far enough away from it so not to damage the roots, say 8 to 12 inches) and pull the roots apart into three sections. This is messy. Also, you might think, "there are no roots here" but there are.
Then, just repot them (or, replant them) in similar soil. Be prepared for them to droop for a while. This is sometimes not successful, but that is the chance you take. We would not hesitate.
With mulching and fertilization, the bulbs should produce bublets off the sides of the main bulb form the previous season.
When digging up in the fall one can divide any bulbs at that time and store for the winter season in a dry cool place. Or wait 'til the spring when you plant again and then divide.
On the other hand, if they remain in the soil year round, divide them in the spring and spread them around. Fertilize well and mulch and they will grow faster. If it is dry for a week or two after you replant them, supplement with some extra watering.
Planting the bulb
Elephant ears come in various sizes, the larger the bulb the larger the plant will be for the season. The pointy end should go towards the sky. The more blunt end should go in the ground.
If you are lucky, and your EE bulb is already sprouting, stick the top pointing up. We often suggest planting sideways because it is hard to tell the difference between the top and the bottom. Plant deep enough to cover just below the tip.
Most bulbs are planted at a depth of one and a half times their length.
Make sure you have plenty of room for growth, fertilize once a month during the growing season, mulch and enjoy. Do not overwater at this stage. Bulbs do rot. When in doubt if the leaves start to droop you may need water. Always check the soil to assure that it is moist.
Digging up / storing for winter
Digging up the elephant ear for the season should happen when the plant starts to die back. You will notice brown crunchy leaves and when the first spells of cold evenings come they will start to knock the plant down. Even after the first frost is a good time to dig up the bulb. Do not wait any longer because the bulbs will start to get mushy.
Cut off the large leaves and leave just a stem to help plant the bulbs next spring.
Dry off the plantings. Trim the tops off. Store in a warm dry area, insulate, and cover with peat
moss/vermiculite/ or sawdust. Something that will keep the roots dry.
Storing elephant ears or any bulbs sometimes is a tricky process. Any chance of temperatures below freezing will mush the bulbs.
Dig up the elephant ear bulb IF it is not in a very protected area. If you have a microclimate and plenty of pine straw mulch to insulate the bulb, you may want to chance it.
Sometimes in the wet of winter and if there is not good drainage, you could get a very soggy/mushy bulb and it may rot away.
If you live in a very cold region, we would suggest you dig up the elephant ears and take them inside for the winter months. We do not believe a container will be sufficient protection. Containers usually get even colder than the ground. You can bring the entire container indoors for those winter months.
You can leave the bulb in over the winter, probably in zone 8 or warmer.
We lived in SC and did not dig our elephant ear up and it did just fine. It was, however, in full sun on a hillside and had somewhat good drainage.
Putting out in spring
After the last frost date AND the soil has warmed up plant the EE. Remember they love organic soil/ and then fertilize after about a couple of weeks when they have settled in.
When we lived up north (NH, NY, VA) our rule of thumb about when to put the houseplants out was after we had turned the heat off. We did not want to shock the plants going from our heated house (even at 65 degrees) to the outdoors (45 degrees). Therefore, we would wait until it gets into the mid-50s.
When we were in Northern Florida, the Elephant Ear stayed outside all year long and did great as long as it did not get to freezing. IF it did freeze the leaves mush up and droop but it generated new leaves very soon.
Planting elephant ears inside before the season is a great idea. A good way to get a jump-start.
You may have to wait up to 4 weeks before you see a sprout tip. However, make sure you do not overwater. Give it the best light you can and warmth from the bottom. Elephant Ears love heat. Place outside as soon as you feel you can without danger of cold nights.
We have divided elephant ears many times. It does not have much of a root system. Just take off the shoots that look like babies coming off it (they are babies) and plant those, if there are any. Then, just divide it by those trunks. Try to keep enough roots with each trunk.
In the process, if it loses the lower leaves / stems they can survive that, too.
If you are not sure how much moisture err on the side of wetness. We've planted in a pot right in the water before (although most of ours grow in the sandy soil.
With the weather in the summer, the plant material will wilt. Make sure they are mulched and it may take a week or so before they perk up. Some leaves may die back, just trim.
Transplanting in the middle of the summer is always hard on plant material. It is a shock no matter what.
Do not over water; just check every few days. Do not fertilize.
As a House Plant
The elephant ear (in our experience) will not grow indoors all year long. Like most bulbs it needs a rest to recoup some energy for the next growth cycle. Generally, it goes according to season. Sprouting in the spring, growing in the summer, and then dying back when the weather gets cooler and the days shorter........this is best for the growth of the plant.
If you can simulate a tropical condition in your home, you may fool it into thinking it is in Florida and it may grow all year long. There are several varieties and some do better than others indoors.
How do I control and eliminate?
We have some readers who write like the following: "I live in Orlando, FL and my back yard is full of elephant plants. I have removed over 100 Elephant plants from my yard. I just put down new sod and they are growing up through the grass. I'm digging out every single plant along with the bulb and they keep coming back. Do they spread with wind? Is there something else that I need to be digging up? Why do so many keep coming back? Could there have been bulbs in the new sod that I laid down? Besides pulling up every bulb, is there any other way to get rid of them. I have kept four of the plants, they are over 9 feet tall, but I would like the rest of them gone. "
We usually reply: "Keep pullin' "
In Northern Florida we had many volunteer plants all over the yard. They seem to avoid areas where there is intense sun for more than a few hours a day.
All you really can do is just pull up the bulb. We have pulled up a lot where there does not seem to be a bulb. As long as it is shady, humid, and wet they seem to thrive.
Sharing is a good way to get rid of them. Chopping as much as you want is ok too. They are propagating underground ! Some are probably more of a rhizome than a bulb.
We suspect you will not harm them by digging them up. Pot them up and see how they do for a couple of weeks in the pot. If they perk up and seem healthy, we pass them on.
We would not suggest letting your children or pets chew on any plant. Not all parts of every plant is poisonous but some parts of plants are. We suggested children would love growing these bulbs, for they grow large very quickly and get instant satisfaction from such a plant.
Some elephant ears may be poisonous and others (taro, that are sometimes considered in the elephant ear family) are not. One would have to know the variety of each kind of elephant ear plant to know the specific dangers. We would never test any plant just to find out. We own elephant ear plants and have two cats that are in and around them all the time. There has never been a problem. (But on the same time they do chew and nibble on our spider plants.)
We would also teach all children never to eat anything in the flowering garden.
See our readers' comments on eating the Elephant Ear plants (just below).
Plant Delights Nursery article:
Emily: Elephant Ear Survives Zero Temperature Rock Garden
I live on the Arkansas Missouri border in zone 6 and serveral years ago planted several elephant ear bulbs in the rocks that make up my yard. I literally had about three parts rock to one part soil and most of my bulbs were barely in the ground. I never thought they would grow but they were beautiful the first year and it's now three years later and they are bigger than ever!! I have never taken the bulbs up in the fall and worried each winter that they wouldn't come up the next year. The past two winters have been especially hard with at least two months of temps hovering around zero and rarely above 10-15 degrees with 12-16 inches of snow and ice on the ground. I did cover the bulbs in a layer of fall leaves and some grass clippings but was sure they wouldn't make it. I was so delighted when they finally came up! I knew some of the bulbs had rotted during the winter but I have more plants than ever, and larger than they've ever been. Let gardeners know that mulching might be enough to overwinter the bulbs.
Arkansas Missouri border
Emily: Elephant Ear Grows in Indiana
We've had an elephant ear for 6 years that I thought you and your readers might like to know about. We planted it in fertile soil and have repotted it three times. It now is 8' tall, has a 4" stalk and seven leaves, three of which are near 3' by 2' wide.
We live in northern Indiana and have drug it in and out of the house each fall and it's been fine. I don't think it's grown much in the winter but when we've repotted it's loved it and grown like crazy. Originally, it had only two leaves, about 7"-10", and for at least a year every time a new leaf would grow, one would die.
Just this spring we put some packing peanuts in the bottom of the 2' by 2' pot we have it in (it makes the pot lighter!!) along with some dead leaves and organic and plant soil. It has rewarded us with these even bigger leaves and now this new bud. We're so excited I just wanted to share all this info. After going on line to find out about the buds and what to expect, we only saw the picture that you have.
We have a great room with huge windows that all face southeast and several chapel windows that allow light in from the west. It sits in a southeast chapel window in the great room all winter near a heat duct that is several feet away on the wall. We must be doing something right because it really likes us and we are thrilled to be seeing a blossom from our bud soon. If you could tell us more about the blossoms, we'd appreciate it.
Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Emily: They Eat This Plant in the Philippines!
I feel I can tell you more about this plant that you may not be familiar with... as food!
I come from the Bicol Region in the Philippines. Elephant Ears are a delicacy to us. We eat every part of it! We cook the leaves and stems (fresh and dried) with coconut milk. We boil the root (with water or coconut milk with sugar) for snacks even. It has this very, very slight tingling sensation in the tongue sometimes (not all the time). We think it was because we stirred it too much while cooking.
However, if you are peeling the root (or should I say rhizome?) wet, any skin that gets in contact with it will itch like anything! It has a clear sticky liquid that causes the mild irritation. It doesn't give you any rash or anything (unless you scratched and scratched and broke your own skin). We just leave it and try not to scratch until the itch goes away. Rubbing alcohol helps mask the itch.
It is a great source of starch just like Cassava (Tapioca) which I heard is also very poisonous. However, it is a delicacy to us because we cook/eat the leaves and roots too! Of course, that is another topic.
Elephant ears grow everywhere, mostly in swampy and wet areas. Some in canals even. There are different varieties of this plant. I have eaten most of them.
People that came from the Philippines who live in the USA and Europe (like my aunt - she was in Germany and now in the US) have planted this plant (mostly in pots) more for eating than for ornamental purposes.
I miss this plant!
I am not encouraging people to eat this plant if they are not familiar or unsure of it at all or if they have not experienced it. I didn't even know it was toxic since I had been eating this plant as a baby! It is still best to be warned about the toxicity of this plant.
To all Elephant Ears lovers, may all your plants propagate well.
PS: I find your site very interesting as it features plants not common in plant catalogues or common plant internet site... You even feature weeds!!! I think that is so cool! I always find these plants very interesting as I didn't know some grow well here (in the USA), too. I just would like to add more info to some of your plants...
Emily's note: Okay, so don't try eating this at home. "The American Horticultural Society's A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants" lists the Colocasia as the Taro and the Alocasia as the Elephant Ear. Both very similar species. It says about the Colocasia, "All parts may cause mild stomach upset if ingested without cooking, and contact with the sap may irritate the skin." It basically says the same about the Alocasia which seems to have a more deeply veined leaf.
"Botanica" says about the Alocasia (elephant's ear), "Closely related to the taro (Colocasia), the roots of some species are edible, but most contain poisonous crystals which cause numbing and swelling of the tongue and throat." About the Colocasia: "At least two Colocasia species are grown for their edible tubers..."
Another reader suggests: the issue of edibility of the elephant ear, causing tongue and stomach irritation that can cause itching, swelling, and difficulty swallowing...is that almost all genus and species of the family Aracea contain calcium oxylate crystals. think of it as tiny shards of glass. or fiberglass.
Emily: They Eat This Plant in India!
A letter from a reader in India. We thought you elephant ear fans would enjoy this letter, but we are telling you: DO NOT EAT THIS PLANT! (I thought I had problems when Mom made me eat my spinach.)
I come from south Karnataka in India. We call it Tev back home (Rhymes with brave) and Arbi in Hindi. I have a phobia about this plant as when I was a kid, mom had prepared the tubers as a curry. I had severe itching in my throat, as if a hundred tiny needles had embedded in my throat... I recently learned that there are needle like calcium oxalate crystals in the plant. Probably mom hadn't cooked it enough or like some other people say that only a leaf of a particular age can be eaten or maybe we have a different kind of plant here.
We usually prepare it in the following way... (the leaves) we cut the stem from the leaf and discard it. then after washing the leaf, we lay it on a board with the bottom of the leaf facing upwards and using a knife slice off the veins below the leaf. (This allegedly reduces the itch) Then we soak it in a strong solution of tamarind soaked in water, which seems to further reduce the itch. Then we spread a paste of ground rice over it and place another leaf prepared in the same way over it, and do this till we have a sort of a sandwich of a few leaves with the rice paste. then we roll the whole thing into a tube, tie it and steam it in a steamer. When done we cut it into slices and drop it into a gravy.
I'm sure there are better ways of making it as it doesn't taste that great. Maybe that's why we hardly ever prepare it at home even though everyone there has clumps of colocasia at the base of the coconut tree where the water from the wash basin flows to. I do have a pot here in Delhi, which has yielded me a few tubers this year, but I buried the leaves as compost... maybe next time, I'll get over my fear and try it out.