Tropical elephant ears, mostly Colocasia esculenta, lives up to its name. Its leaves are indeed big and floppy like a pachyderm’s ears—positively brobdingnagian sometimes—and corms from some kinds produce a clump that could probably cover the entire length and breadth of the garden here at Fuchsias in the City. In fact, one almost did once. I don’t quite know how I thought that gigantic leaves would be a good match for my small urban garden. Oh, heck, you know gardeners, though, always wanting what they can’t quite have. Or maybe what they shouldn’t quite have. “Hello, elephant ears, it’s been a while…” Seduced perhaps by a come-hither wink from the box at the nursery, and with delusions of a magnificent tropical paradise filling my head, I brought one home and stuck it in a planter, a large planter to be sure, and waited for the memories of its magnificence to unfurl. I figured I could always move the arrangement around to the find the perfect spot. Ordinarily that tactic might work, but in a garden that maxes out at about forty feet by fifteen, finding that perfect spot for such an exuberance and keeping the rest of anything as well, mostly involves wishful thinking. My rekindled flame lasted about three weeks before I had to admit my infatuation was possibly turning out to be a big mistake and I forlornly carted the elephant, ears and all, off to find refuge with a friend on a somewhat more appropriately sized patch of earth.
Of course, colocasias aren’t always as huge as the elephant ears that almost defeated the garden but these days I usually content myself with a few of its smaller, even more brightly patterned cousins, the caladium. Still, I manage to cast a covetous eye its way when I stumble across one. And stumble I did in the test beds at Longwood Gardens in the middle of last August. You see, they hadn’t just set out one or two for observation, but a couple of dozen or more arching clumps, four or six to a bed, presenting their decorative leaves and often colorful stalks for easy inspection. I guess I wasn’t the only person to have stumbled in because lying on the grass between two of the beds, partially hidden under a clump of umbrella leaves, was a man probably so overwhelmed he just fell down. Odd the effect plants can sometimes have on people. Anyway… As I learned long ago with these great plants, you don’t have to own one to enjoy one!
Some colocasia species, by the way, are edible when cooked properly. The species epithet of the ornamental Colocasia esculenta, in fact, means “edible” in Latin. In its food phase these edible elephant ears are usually known as taro and have been feeding people for possibly five or six thousand years or longer, making taro one of the oldest cultivated food plants known. Thought to have originated in Malaysia, it long ago spread westward to India, then to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Much later, taro was carried eastward by Polynesian settlers island hopping across the Pacific. Be aware, however, if you’re wanting to turn your ornamental elephant ears into a crop and a meal at the end of the season, that the raw plant contains calcium oxalate and needle-shaped raphides which must be neutralized before eating by cooking or steeping in cold water for a period. Or just lift and plant them again when the weather warms up enough to their tropical tastes for another round next spring. Or maybe set some out right now in the southern hemisphere. It is spring already, after all, for you.
Beautiful but really too big? Caladiums trade the bold proportions of Colocasia escalata for even more colorful leaves. They’re close relatives of elephant ears but rise to only two feet and less. A better-sized match to my small garden, they have the added attraction of preferring the shade.