The descriptive name given to this tropical plant says it all. The leaves of elephant ears are shaped like the ears of an elephant, and gardeners enjoy them for their large, eye-catching foliage. In many varieties, the leaves can grow up to 3 feet long (.91 meters) and 2 feet wide (.6 meters). They can easily become the focal point of any garden, border or path. Their size and shape can even draw the eye to a previously ignored corner of the garden.
Elephant ears belong to several plant families, including caladium, colocasia and alocasia. More commonly, colocasia is referred to as taro, and caladium is called angel wings. More than 200 varieties exist, some with variegated foliage, like Nancy’s Revenge, and some with ruffled leaves, like the aptly named Ruffles and Black Ruffles. One type children will love is Mickey Mouse, which has large leaves shaped like a silhouette of the famous mouse. Caladiums also come in pink, white and red varieties.
The habit of elephant ears is to send up a single leaf per stalk, with the stalks growing close together in clumps. Under optimum conditions some varieties, such as the black-leafed Black Magic, can produce a clump of foliage up to 6 feet high (1.83 meters) and equally wide. In their native tropics, elephant ears can grow even larger. One variety, Colocasia Gigantea, has been known to reach 10 feet (3.05 meters) high.
In areas with hot summers, such as the American South, elephant ears may burn in full sun and would do better with some shade in the afternoon. In cooler areas with less intense heat, full sun may be just what they need to thrive. No matter where they are planted, elephant ears will give their best and biggest show if given lots of water and fertilizer.
In a warm climate, elephant ears will return year after year. In colder climates, the corms, which some people erroneously refer to as tubers or bulbs, must be dug up before a hard frost and kept through the winter in a sheltered spot. If left in the ground, they will die during a cold winter.