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UT Gardens’ June 2018 Plant of the Month: Elephant Ears
By Carol Reese, UT Extension Western Region Ornamental Horticulture Specialist

  ut gardens june 2018 plant
  'Thailand Giant' elephant ear creates its own atmosphere. Specimens of this plant can be seen in the UT Gardens, Jackson, each summer. They reach maximum size in late summer. Photo courtesy Carol Reese of a specimen at the Plant Delights Nursery in Juniper Level, North Carolina. A private specimen of Thailand Giant on display in the Jackson, Tennessee, area. Photo courtesy J. Reeves, UTIA

Many southern gardeners grew up with an “ordinary” green elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) in the landscape, hardly worth a second glance. As more savvy gardeners became aware of the roles foliage textures play in a well-designed landscape, plants with large leaves were more appreciated. The movement morphed into a deservedly popular theme of creating a landscape with a bold tropical feel, and new forms of elephant ear began to appear in the marketplace. Even in colder parts of the country folks were willing to dig them and store in protected sites during winter, or simply purchase them new each summer. Breeders responded with a surge of cultivars displaying black, chartreuse or even variegated foliage. Most are not hardy beyond zone 8, but a few have demonstrated their hardiness through zone 7 unless the winter is particularly severe.

‘Black Magic’ was the first of the forms with dramatically dark foliage, which can range from purplish to truly glossy black forms such as ‘Black Coral’ and ‘Diamond Head’. If hardiness is desired, the form called ‘Illustris’ is often persistent through zone 7, and well-sited plants can even spread from the original plants so much as to be considered aggressive! Illustris does not present the solid dark leaf some prefer, with its bright green veins radiating from the center of the leaf. It is also not going to be as large as some of the other varieties, either in leaf size or in height.

For the gardener who wants a tall form, seek out the 6-footer called ‘Big Dipper’. The large leaves are supported by dramatic dark stems, and cup upwards to form a shallow bowl. A leaf may fill gradually with water during a light rain with no wind, until the weight of the water bends the stem just enough to dump its load. ‘Coffee Cups’ has even more steeply cupped leaves, which expose the gorgeous dark veins on the leaf underside. It is much less hardy, however, while Big Dipper may overwinter where well sited in zone 7.

Veins are the excitement in other cultivars such as the green-leafed form with richly purple veins called ‘Blue Hawaii’. ‘Elena’ has bright chartreuse leaves, with cranberry veins, and a lovely delicate cranberry edge to the leaves. ‘Chicago Harlequin’ has crazy striped stems as its claim to fame, while ‘Mojito’ sports bright green leaves richly splashed and speckled with black.

For a gee-whiz, good-golly, take-a-look-at-that-plant reaction, it’s got to be 'Thailand Giant’ (Colocasia gigantea). With plenty of water and nutrients, this plant may reach 9 feet in height, with leaves that measure individually at 5 feet in length and 4 feet in width.

For best success with elephant ears other than Thailand Giant, generosity with water and nutrients also holds true. These tropical plants love moisture and nutrients, so while they don’t require a lot for survival, they will richly reward the gardener with a lavish hand. They can be grown in sun or light shade, but suffer in a hot sunny site if not given plenty of water. In fact, most of the C. esculenta are happy in wet sites, and good for pond margins, but be aware that C. gigantea will rot in these wet sites.

You can find various specimens of elephant ears on display at all of the UT Gardens sites: Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville.

The gardener should be warned these plants can be addictive. One leads to another and another...

The UT Gardens includes plant collections located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville. Designated as the official botanical garden for the State of Tennessee, the collections are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. The Gardens’ mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, educational programs and research trials. The Gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. For more information, see the Gardens website:

Published June 1, 2018

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