Elephant Ears Planting Guide

Colocasia esculenta is grown as a dietary staple in Malaysia, India, the Philippines, on many Pacific Islands and in other tropical countries. Thought to be one of the earliest cultivated plants, taro or dasheen as it’s called, has been used in cooking since before the times of the Greeks and Romans. This root vegetable is prepared in ways similar to our potato; boiled, in stews, thinly sliced and fried for chips, grated to make pancakes (think latkes) and powdered as a flavoring. (Never eaten raw.) We have yet to try any of these dishes and instead savor its exclamation point-like presence in the garden.

Planting Information

Choosing a Site

Alocasia and colocasia like sunlight and perform best in full sun. In hot areas, especially where there’s low humidity, they’ll do well in partial sun. The plants in this family are partial to moist soils and can be grown along pond edges or even with potted tubers submerged in 2-6 inches of water.

Soil Prep

As heavy feeders, alocasia and colocasia need rich soil or supplemental nutrients. These plants also need soil that never dries out and is at least moderately moist. When grown in large containers, partner with other plants that thrive in similar conditions. Sun tolerant coleus, in their varied colors and patterns, are good partners.

When to Plant

In cooler regions, get a jump on the season by planting early indoors. These bulbs can take a while to break dormancy, wake up and start sprouting, so giving them some lead time indoors can help.  Or, plant outdoors when frost danger has past. Alocasia and colocasia are tropicals and cannot be allowed to freeze. The bulbs need steady warmth to break dormancy and start growing. (Cool/cold nights slow or stall their progress.) These bulbs can be slow to get going, taking 2 to 6 weeks to sprout depending on variety, temperature and overall growing conditions.

How to Plant

Dig a hole about the size of a basketball and mix in a couple scoops of compost. Plant the tuber so that it is covered with about 4” of soil. As it’s often difficult to identify the top, feel free to plant the tuber on its side. (If there happens to be a sprout, that indicates the top – plant that facing upwards.) Refill around plant with soil, tap down to eliminate air pockets and water well. While waiting for the bulb to sprout, water sparingly. The goal is to keep the soil slightly moist. Soggy soil is likely to result in bulb rot.

During the Season

During the growing season, keep the soil moist. As the plants grow they will replace older leaves with new, fresh ones. Shedding leaves is normal and not grounds for concern. Remove the dead leaves to keep the plants looking their best.

End of Season Care

Gardeners in zones 8-10 may leave plants in the ground over the winter. For extra protection in colder parts of zone 8, mulch the crown with shredded leaves. In colder regions, lift and overwinter your elephant ears indoors. Treat them like cannas and dahlias; brush off the soil and store in peat at 45-50 degrees. Replant in spring when soil is warm.

Insider Tips

  1. Helpful info for identifying plants in this group: alocasia leaves typically point upwards while colocasia leaves grow horizontally or point downwards, like giant hearts.
  2. If you live in a warm area and leave your tubers in the ground, you may want to dig and resettle every three to four years. Plants in this family, especially Black Magic, tend to migrate to the soil surface and need to be resettled periodically.
  3. If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves or wash well after handling these plants. Their sap contains the same chemical (calcium oxalate) found in caladiums, rhubarb leaves and philodendrons. Some people find it irritating.
  4. A tip to help get your bulbs sprouting; heat. These are tropical plants and a bit of bottom heat encourages the bulbs to sprout. Place your potted bulb on a slightly warm surface - the top of the refrigerator, the top of a warm (not hot) furnace, etc. 
shop elephant ears
shop elephant ears

Success Snapshot

Light: Sun to partial sun

Soil: Moist and fertile

Depth: Cover tubers with 4” of soil

Water: Keep moist

Uses: Beds, water garden and big pots

Tip: Never let the soil dry out

GUIDE: Elephant Ears Planting Guide

They Start Out looking Like This: