Sunflowers and Elephant Ears

Taro (Calocasia esculenta)

Taro (Calocasia esculenta)

What the sunflower is to the plains of America, elephant’s ear is to the rain forests of tropical Asia. Depending on whether your outlook is artistic or gastronomic, you will look at a sunflower and see a glorious, deep yellow-petaled ode to the sun that captures the essence of light itself (such was Van Gogh’s view), or an enormous handful of tasty seeds. In a similar way, the landscape designer looks at the elephant’s ear and sees magnificent triangular foliage, while the cook dreams up countless recipes for the corms – edible, underground bulblike structures – to which those unwieldy leaves are attached.
If you are looking for a dramatic subject for either shade or water gardens, taro or elephant’s ear (Colocasia esculentum) has no equal. Its leaves are 2 feet long and burgeon forth in dense clusters. Although elephant’s ear is a name given to any number of large leafed plants, the original taro plant is the one whose leaves are truly floppy and pendent like an elephant’s. Be assured that there are several hundred taro varieties, with leaves in every shade of green, burgundy red and purple. Most of these varieties are upright and, in the opinion of many plant watchers, are more elegant – albeit less charming – than the droopier types.
Taro originated in India, China and Southeast Asia but has become a staple in the diet of people who live in the tropics throughout the world. The Polynesians who settled Hawaii are thought to have brought taro from Africa, and it was in Hawaii where cultivation of taro became a fine horticultural art, the plants being grown there for centuries in elaborately terraced water gardens.
Taro can be grown in shade or sun. In fact, it is enormously versatile in adapting to a variety of watering regimens. It is cold-sensitive, however, and dies back to the ground each winter. The more sun it gets, the more water it requires. Plant it in a shade garden with species having similarly shaped foliage – acanthus, Philodendron selloum, caladium and calla lilies – to make your collection of elephant ears, large and small, complete.
The habitat of large-leafed plants is invariably a shady one. The deeper the shade, the larger the leaf. Scarcity of light means that leaf surface area will need to be at a maximum in order to absorb the small amount of light that is available for photosynthesis.
To expose taro to full sun, you will have to give it the sort of uninterrupted moisture supply that only a water garden can provide. In a water garden, use it either as a single subject or with contrasting plants with strong vertical lines – such as horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), cattail (Typhus latifolia) or pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata).
Although not a taro, a closely related plant with similar characteristics – and also called elephant’s ear – is Alocasia. Alocasia will be familiar to visitors of the Los Angeles Zoo, since it grows there just inside the main entrance, on the right-hand side next to a waterfall.
Most water gardens are situated in the sun, but elephant ears have the ability, possessed by only a handful of plants, to grow in a shaded water garden as well. Here they could be grouped with Egyptian papyrus or bulrush (Cyperus papyrus) and its cousin, the umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius), along with fiber optics rush (Scirpus cernuus), a grassy plant whose flowers give it an unmistakably fiber-optic look. For color in a shady water garden, plant yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) and blue flag iris (Iris versicolor).
It is a pity that elephant ears are not more frequently encountered in the garden. To the best of my knowledge, no local nurseries carry these plants, although an established retail nursery may be able to special-order elephant ears for you. The Caladium Bulb Co. in Winterhaven, Fla., begins shipping elephant ear corms each January. You can order their free bulb catalog by calling (800) 974-2558.

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