How to Grow and Care for Elephant Ear Plants, Tropical Tubers That Thrive in Nearly Any Warm Environment
If you look forward to annual tropical getaways, know that you can bring some of that far-flung vibrancy to your home with the help of an elephant ear plant. The summer-loving greenery thrives in warm and humid environments—but that doesn't necessarily mean they won't work in locales with four seasons. Formally known as colocasia esculenta and colloquially referred to as taro plants, this fast-growing variety, which can become quite large, adds major visual intrigue to your home, whether it is grown indoors or out.
How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Elephant Ear Plants Outdoors
Elephant ear plants can be grown from seed and perform best in USDA hardiness zones of 8 to 10; they can be overwintered in zone 7 with the help of a thick winter mulch, says Marc Hachadourian, the director of glasshouse horticulture and senior curator of orchids at The New York Botanical Garden.
Since they need heat to thrive, they are typically grown as annuals in cooler zones; in warmer climates, where they are considered perennials, they can reach up to 2 feet in length and 5 feet in height. "They are best planted outdoors in late spring to early summer when soil temperatures exceed 50 degrees," Hachadourian says. "They can be planted as small plants or as large dormant tubers and will grow quickly as the days get warmer and longer."
Tubers should be placed in moist, well-draining soil that is neutral or slightly acidic, says Justine Kandra, a horticulturist at Missouri Botanical Garden's Kemper Center for Home Gardening; tubers and small plants alike should be inserted a few inches into the ground during planting.
Elephant ear plants can tolerate full sun, but typically thrive in locations with access to bright light in the morning and shade in the afternoon. Consider your region when you're deciding on a spot: If you live in an area that experiences intense heat during the summer, plant them in a shaded part of your garden, notes the National Gardening Association. If you dwell in a cooler locale, partial shade to full sun is best.
Though these plants can withstand full sun, elephant ears do not tolerate prolonged periods of drought. When the top inch of your soil is dry, add water. "Container-grown elephant ears in full sun may need to be watered once a day in hot summer weather," says Kandra. "Monitor the soil moisture to determine when your elephant ear needs more water."
It's important to feed these plants with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer—apply the food once per month during the summer growing season to keep them nourished.
Remove any old, yellowing leaves with sharp, clean pruners during the summer months, Kandra notes. Doing so will allow new leaves to grow in and keep the plant hardier in the winter months.
How to Grow and Care for Elephant Ear Plants Indoors
Since these plants grow best outdoors in warm weather, it's important to bring them inside when the weather turns chilly. "These plants can be overwintered indoors either as a houseplant or stored dormant in a cool, dark place, such as a basement or garage," says Kandra. If you choose the latter route, dig them out of the ground after the first frost in fall and place them in a box or paper bag in one of the aforementioned storage locations. They can return outside in the spring once the fear of frost has passed.
You can also grow these plants in containers inside. Similar to other tuber plants, like dahlias, elephant ears need a large container (about 1 gallon) to grow if you decide to start them indoors. Mirror the humid, moist conditions they would experience outdoors in their native locale to help them thrive inside your home.
- Start by filling the pot with moist, well-draining garden soil.
- Plant one tuber per pot and place about 2 to 3 inches deep.
- Put your pot in a warm, sunny spot (at least 60 degrees) and don't water until the sprout shows above the soil.
Once you see roots growing out of the pot's drainage holes or circling its top, it is time to repot your elephant ear plant, notes Kandra. "This may need to be done every year depending on how quickly the plant is growing," she says. Pick a new pot that is only 1 to 2 inches wider than the current pot. Gently remove the plant and place it in the new pot, backfilling with fresh potting mix that is well-draining and moist.
How to Propagate Elephant Ear Plants
The best way to propagate an elephant ear plant is by dividing the multiple tubers each year. "Even though the plants seem tiny in spring, they will reach full size in one summer when they are happy," says Hachadourian. "Some varieties will produce plants on runners—long creeping stems that produce plantlets at the ends that can be separated and propagated." Simply cut the offshoots that emerge around the base of the plant with a sharp knife and replant during the growing season.
It's important to note that these plants are toxic—they contain insoluble calcium oxalates, which can cause mouth swelling and irritation to humans and animals, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Be mindful of where you plant them, especially if you have little ones or pups and outdoor cats.
While elephant ear plants are relatively easy to care for, there are a couple of things to watch for.
Spider mites are the most common pest you'll come across when caring for this plant, whether they are grown inside or outdoors. "These nearly microscopic mites cause stippling and discoloration of the leaves, and can create a fine webbing on the leaf surfaces," says Kandra. These bugs are drawn to warm, dry conditions, so the best way to combat them is by boosting the humidity. To do so, Hachadourian recommends overhead watering, since this increases the humidity and moisture that these plants love.
Yellowing and Drooping Leaves
If you notice that the plants' leaves are yellow and drooping, they are too dry at the roots—or they're experiencing low levels of humidity. This happens when the sun receives too much direct sunlight, zapping the leaves of life and color. "Plants that were indoors and then moved outdoors in the spring are especially susceptible to leaf scorch," says Kandra. "Acclimate indoor plants to the outdoors slowly by placing them in a shady area for a few weeks before moving them into areas with more sun."