Elephant ears are definitely a statement piece in the garden. Our interest in these beautiful, tropical plants peaked when we spoke to our neighbor about them several years ago. Who doesn’t love growing dramatic plants with gigantic leaves?
“Elephant ear” is the common name for a group of tropical plants grown for their striking foliage. These plants may be in the genera Alocasia, Colocasia, Xanthosoma, and sometimes Caladium as well.
One of the most commonly grown elephant ear species is C.esculenta (also known as Taro). If you have ever enjoyed a flavorful Taro root bubble tea, you may be surprised to know it’s the same thing at this beautiful plant. Taro root has been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years for both culinary and ornamental purposes.
In our experience, these plants are very easy to grow outdoors in pots. In fact, some varieties are considered an invasive species in some climates. We have grown elephant ears in the ground, but we like the flexibility of being able to move them around our patio in pots. They add a lovely aesthetic to any outdoor space.
Purchasing elephant ear bulbs
While many people refer to elephant ear corms as “bulbs”, they are actually corms that sometimes grow smaller tubers off of them. The terms “bulb”, “tuber” and “corm” are often used interchangeably.
You can purchase elephant ear bulbs at most garden stores, or online. Be sure you are purchasing them from a reputable retailer. We made the mistake of buying bulbs once that were stored outdoors. They were completely rotted and we were unable to grow them. You want to ensure the bulbs are firm, not soggy or soft.
Because we start our plants indoors (and relatively early), I prefer purchasing them online. The big box stores typically get their shipments in later than I would like.
Tip: To save some money, consider purchasing taro (coco yam) at your local Asian grocery store. You can plant and grow it instead of eating it!
And remember, you can dig up and save the bulbs each year as well. See how to overwinter elephant ears below.
How to start elephant ears indoors to grow in pots
Because we do not live in the warm tropics (we’re in zone 6), we start our elephant ears indoors. This gives us the opportunity to have giant plants during the summer, as they are given a nice head start.
When starting your elephant ears indoors, you’ll want to plant them in a lightly moistened soil mix. I will typically plant one bulb per 4-6 inch pot. At this point, you are simply “waking up” the bulbs, and they do not need much space to grow. As soon as it is warm enough outside, they will be transplanted to larger pots outdoors.
- Ensure your soil mixture is lightly moist, but not sopping wet – you do not want the tubers to rot.
- Plant them about one inch deep in the soil
- Once you see shoots, give them a good source of light
- Do not start them too early! We start our elephant ears in late March or early April. Once they begin to sprout, we place them under our grow lights. Then, are are brought outdoors when it is warm enough (typically in early June)
Moving elephant ears outdoors in pots
Once all the danger of frost has passed, it is safe to bring your elephant ears outdoors. Remember, these are tropical plants and they cannot tolerate temperatures that are too cold.
We aim for overnight temperatures to be at least 55°F before bringing elephant ears outside. In other words, you can move elephant ears outdoors with any other non-hardy annuals (like tomatoes or peppers).
You can also move your elephant ears outside earlier to help harden them off to the sun. However, remember to bring them back inside if the overnight temps will dip below 55°F or so.
What size pot for elephant ear?
Elephant ears grow to be large, hungry plants. They will consume a lot of water and fertilizer throughout the season, so it is important to use a pot large enough to satisfy the size of these plants.
In general, it is best to grow elephant ears in large containers, at least 18″ in diameter. I also plant just one elephant ear plant per pot, as these plants get large and can easily fill out the space. However, if you want a fuller look, you can plant multiple bulbs in a single pot.
Do elephants ears in pots like sun or shade?
We have grown elephant ears in both full, direct sunlight, and partial shade. In our experience, elephant ears grow best with dappled sunlight. We like to position them under a tree where they will get plenty of sun to thrive, but not so much that the leaves burn.
The best thing to do is experiment with different places in yard. If you grow 4 elephant ear bulbs, place them all in different locations to see where they grow best for you.
Of course, the variety of elephant ear will also play a role. Some varieties prefer more sunlight, so you will want to research the kind you purchased to provide the best conditions.
How often to water elephant ears in pots
When it comes to watering your elephant ear plant, there are many factors to consider. This past summer it happened to rain very frequently in our region. So, we didn’t have to water our outdoor plants as much.
Elephant ears will tell you when they are very thirsty! The large leaves will droop (see photo below) when they are severely dehydrated. However, after a good watering, they will perk right back up.
Elephant ears like to be kept evenly moist and require a well-draining soil. Depending on your climate and the outdoor temperature, you may need to water your plant more frequently. These plants are large and like to be watered on a regular basis.
Tip: Colocasias can tolerate wetter soils than Alocasias. This is something to consider if you live in a particularly wet climate.
Elephant ears leaves turning yellow (6 reasons why)
If you notice your elephant ear leaves turning yellow, don’t fret! It’s usually not a big deal and can be treated pretty quickly. Here are some of the reasons your plants leaves may be turning yellow.
- Life cycle – Believe it or not, it is normal for the older leaves of your elephant ear plants to turn yellow. When this happens, you can cut them off.
- Fungal blight – Elephant ears are susceptible to fungal issues on their leaves. This is caused by excessive moisture and is easily identified by circular spots on the leaves of your plant. You can easily treat it with a spray-on fungicide.
- Over-watering – Elephant ears can tolerate a lot of water, so this likely is not the case if your leaves are turning yellow. But, it is impossible. If your plants have been sitting in waterlogged soil for an extended period of time (especially if there is no drainage), they can turn yellow and rot.
- Under-watering – Elephant ears require a lot of water to keep their big leaves healthy. If your plant is thirsty, it will tell you with drooping leaves before they turn yellow.
- Nutrition – I like to feed with a fertilizer high in nitrogen once a month during the growing season. Too much or too little fertilizer can cause discoloration issues in your plants.
- Improper sunlight – Too much sunlight will burn the leaves of your elephant ears and they will turn yellow and crispy. In my experience, these plants prefer dappled sunlight. That being said, we do have one elephant ear in full sunlight and we simply cut off the burnt leaves when they look unsightly.
Overwintering elephant ear tubers
In our climate, we cannot grow elephant ears year-round. Therefore, we need to save the bulbs for planting next year. You can do this one of two ways:
- Cut the plants back for storage over the winter. One option is to cut the plant back entirely and store the pot (with soil) in a dry place that does not get too cold (at least 55°F). If you are planting your elephant ears in a large pot with heavy soil, this may not be the ideal method for you. This also requires you to find a good place to overwinter the plant (such as a basement or warm garage).
- Dig up bulbs, remove, and store. At the end of the season, simply cut off the foliage, dig up your tubers and let them dry for a few days. Then, wrap them in newspaper or place them in peat moss, and store them over the winter for planting the following year. This is our preferred method of overwintering elephant ears.
If you have ever grown elephant ears in pots outdoors, tell us about your experience in the comments. What varieties did you grow? And, what climate are you in?
This is one plant we’re always excited to watch grow. Seeing those huge leaves emerge each day is always fascinating!