Elephant ear plants make a bold statement in the garden, but this bulb is also a wonderful addition to outdoor patio planters and containers. Growing elephant ears in pots is an excellent way to add a fun, tropical vibe to outdoor areas without requiring a lot of effort. In this article, you’ll learn which types of elephant ears to grow in pots and how to set yourself up for success.
What are elephant ears?
Elephant ears are foliage plants that hail from tropical regions of Asia. They are members of the plant family Araceae, and their large, arrow-shaped leaves easily earn them the common name of elephant ear. Growing from subterranean bulbs, they are surprisingly easy to cultivate.
Elephant ears grow best where daytime temperatures range from 60° to 85°F. In temperate climates like mine here in Pennsylvania, elephant ears are grown as a summer ornamental (often the smaller varieties are also grown indoors as houseplants). In the tropics, elephant ears are perennial and make a permanent addition to the landscape. This article focuses on the techniques needed for growing elephant ears in pots outdoors in temperate climates like mine.
There are two genera of plants commonly known as elephant ears, Colocasia and Alocasia. Some regions also refer to Caladiums as elephant ears, but this article focuses primarily on Colocasia and Alocasia species and varieties.
Colocasia vs Alocasia
Some gardeners find it difficult to tell the difference between these two tropical plants commonly known as elephant ears. Here are some clear differences between the two.
1. Alocasia have the thicker, sometimes upturned leaves and very distinct leaf veins. Many varieties have variegated veination as well (especially those smaller Alocasia varieties that are commonly grown as houseplants). There are nearly 100 species of Alocasia. Depending on the species, the large leaves can grow anywhere from 8 inches to 3 feet in length. Foliage and stems can range in color from green to burgundy to nearly black. Alocasia varieties with leaves that point upwards are sometimes called upright elephant ears.
2. Colocasia leaves are generally thinner than Alocasias. The tips of the leaves almost always point downward, and the leaf veins aren’t as plump. Some species of Colocasia have become invasive in warmer climates, particularly in the southeastern US. Depending on the variety, the large leaves can grow up to 60 inches in length. Foliage colors range from chartreuse and Kelly green to deep burgundy and various variegations.
Both Alocasias and Colocasias are most noteworthy for their interesting foliage, though they do rarely flower. The blooms are spathe-like and often hidden down in the foliage.
Choosing which types of elephant ears to grow
When deciding which variety to elephant ear to grow in pots, there are several factors to consider.
- Size of the mature plant. Some species and cultivars are significantly larger than others. If you have a large pot that holds at least 10 gallons of potting mix, you can grow one of the larger types. But if you only have a smaller pot, opt for one that matures at a more modest size.
- The leaf color and/or variegation. Obviously when growing elephant ears in pots, you’ll want to choose one that appeals to you aesthetically. There are so many varieties out there, you might have trouble settling on just one!
- The size of the elephant ear leaves themselves. Some leaves are gigantic while others are more petite. Select accordingly.
- Level of sunlight. Though they are tropical plants, Alocasia prefer shade to partial shade when grown in pots outdoors. Colocasias can handle more sun. Plus, Colocasias tend to prefer slightly warmer temperatures than Alocasias.
When to plant elephant ear bulbs in containers
Regardless of which species you choose to grow, planting elephant ears in pots should occur at a very specific time. None of them are frost hardy, nor do they enjoy cooler temperatures. Wait to plant elephant ears until the danger of frost has passed and then a few additional weeks beyond that. If you plant them too early, they could freeze out, or at the very least, they’ll languish and spend extra energy “catching up” when the temperatures eventually get around to warming.
In my Pennsylvania garden, I plant elephant ears in late May or early June. You’ll be surprised how quickly they take off and grow into gorgeous, lush mature plants when the temperatures are ideal.
While you can purchase started elephant ear plants from nurseries and garden centers, I find it much more cost effective to grow them from bulbs. I buy the bulbs at my local garden center, but there are lots of online sources too. The only time I recommend purchasing started plants instead of bare bulbs is for gardeners who live in a northern zone with a short growing season.
The best soil for growing elephant ears in pots
Once you’ve purchased your bulbs, it’s time to think about the best soil for growing elephant ears in pots. While you can use a standard organic potting mix blended 50/50 with compost, you can also make your own. I fill my pots with a mixture of peat moss, leaf compost, perlite, and vermiculite (I use the DIY potting mix for perennials recipe found here). Since elephant ears prefer rich soil high in organic matter, I sometimes toss in a shovel full of the neighbor’s well-rotted horse manure, too. If you don’t like using peat moss, opt for coir fiber or a potting soil that is based on composted wood chips instead of peat.
The ideal mix is well draining while still being water retentive. Remember, elephant ears are native to tropical regions with high amounts of rainfall and soil moisture. Many varieties will grow at the edge of a pond, but they do not like to be in stagnant water. Make sure your soil mix is capable of retaining soil without staying constantly boggy.
Which containers are best for growing elephant ears in pots
I recommend growing elephant ears in large pots, where they can reach their full growth potential. Smaller pots equal smaller growth, which is fine if you’re growing a more compact variety or you only have a small patio or balcony. But if you want a lot of va-va-voom, opt for a big pot and a big variety. My own pots for growing elephant ears hold between 15 and 30 gallons of potting mix and my plants reach upwards of 5 to 6 feet tall (see photos). It’s like being in a tropical paradise every time I step onto my patio!
As always, make sure each pot has multiple drainage holes so excess irrigation water can freely flow out of them. I like to use glazed ceramic pots, but plastic, wood, or metal containers work fine, too. Avoid terracotta pots because they dry out too quickly.
Planting elephant ear bulbs in containers
To plant elephant ear tubers, first fill your containers with potting mix three-quarters of the way up. Then determine which end of the elephant ear bulb is up and which end is down. On the tip of the up end is a small nub that protrudes from the bulb. This will become the shoot system. The down end has a round basal root disc where the roots will emerge from.
Place the bulb into the pot with the correct end up and cover it with more soil mix so the small nub is only about one to two inches beneath the soil surface. Do not bury elephant ear bulbs too deeply or they may take a very long time to emerge, if they emerge at all. They are not like spring-blooming bulbs that need to be planted deeply in order to survive the winter. Keep them shallow in the pot.
Water the newly planted bulbs in well and place a marker next to each of them so you remember where you’ve planted them. They can take several weeks to emerge, depending on the temperatures and the level of sun exposure. Don’t freak out if they take a while to break the soil surface. Once they do, it will be worth it.
Where to place your potted Alocasia or Colocasia plant
Choose a site that is away from strong winds which can topple the pot if the plant grows tall and top-heavy. Full-sun areas should be avoided except for gardeners in the northernmost growing zones. Instead, choose a site that receives direct sunlight in the morning or the evening but partial shade in the middle of the afternoon.
When growing elephant ears in pots, I tend to make them the focal point of my patio or deck display. Everyone asks about them and comments on how fun they are. The goal, of course, is to make sure you site them where you and your family can appreciate and enjoy them the most.
Give elephant ears room to grow
Both older leaves and new leaves take up a lot of space. Give potted elephant ear plants plenty of space to strut their stuff. Avoid placing the pots up against a wall or fence because the plants will grow one-sided. The more room they have, the healthier they will be.
How often to water when growing elephant ears in pots
Elephant ears evolved in regions with moist soils, so they need lots of water during the heat of summer. I water my pots daily using this method of deep watering in the summer. In the spring, before hot temperatures arrive, I water deeply two to three times a week. The pots should not be allowed to fully dry out because elephant ears are not drought tolerant. Consistent soil moisture is a key to success.
Tips for fertilization when growing elephant ears in pots
Both Alocasias and Colocasias are fairly heavy feeders. Add an organic slow-release fertilizer to your potting mix at the start of the growing season for a reliable, long-term supply of nutrients. Alternatively, toss in a half cup of bulb-specific fertilizer for every 12 to 15 gallons of potting soil in the pot prior to planting the bulb. My 30-gallon pots each get a cup of bulb fertilizer at the start of the growing season. I like to use a brand called Bulb-Tone, but any bulb fertilizer will do.
How to save elephant ear bulbs from year to year
Since you’ve invested in the bulbs, you may want to save them from year to year. Thankfully, this is easy to do at the end of the growing season. Elephant ears are perennials, but they are not winter hardy, so they’ll have to be overwintered one of two ways.
- Bring the potted elephant ear plants indoors and grow them as houseplants through the winter. This is obviously easier for smaller varieties than it is for larger ones, but it is possible. Bring the plants indoors when nighttime temperatures average about 55°F and well before the first frost arrives. Reduce watering through the winter months to once every 14 to 21 days. Place the plants in an east- or west-facing window.
- The second method of overwintering elephant ear bulbs is to put the bare bulbs into winter storage, much like you would do for canna tubers. When late fall arrives and frost threatens, cut the leaves all the way back to the ground. Dig up the bulbs, brush off the dirt, and pack them into a cardboard box filled with slightly damp peat moss or vermiculite. Close the box and place it in a cool, unheated garage or a root cellar for the winter. The temperature should hover between 35° and 50°F for most of the winter. When spring arrives and the threat of frost passes, take the bulbs out of the box and plant them back out into their patio pots. Piece of cake.
Are elephant ears the same as taro plants?
I get this question a lot. The answer is yes, when grown for their edible plant parts, some species of both Alocasia and Colocasia (Colocasia esculenta in particular) are known as taro. Both the bulbs and the stems are eaten in many cultures. Also called dasheen, kalo, edo, or a large number of other names depending on the region where it is grown, the bulb must be properly processed before eating. If it is not, it is poisonous and can cause extreme irritation due to the presence of calcium oxalate. Since it requires such careful processing, I do not recommend trying to eat Alocasia or Colocasia bulbs unless you learn how to properly prepare them first.
I hope you’ve gained some insight into growing elephant ears in pots. They really are wonderful additions to your outdoor potted plant collection. I encourage you to try a few different varieties each year to discover your favorites. I love all of the ones in my personal collection and promise that before you know it, you’ll be as in love with these great plants as I am.
For more of my favorite tropical plants, please visit the following articles:
- The rex begonia vine – Cissus discolor
- Growing fishbone cactus
- Growing angel trumpets from seed
- Jewel orchid care