While we usually thing of palms and bananas for tropical flare in our yards, a great addition that you might not immediately think of are elephant ears. They come in quite a few varieties of sizes, shapes, and colors.
One of the easiest to grow in Memphis is Colocasia esculenta. It is native to southeast Asia and has also been a staple vegetable for thousands of years in tropical climates. It comes in several cultivars, many of which perform excellently in our climate.
Colocasia esculenta ‘Taro’ is a “standard” green elephant ear. It’s zone 7 hardy and reproduces readily. They especially love water, so much in fact, that they can be treated as aquatic plants.
These reproduce very readily with above ground runners as pictured below. They can be guided and “aimed” rather easily if you pay attention to them weekly. They can also be cut if you want to keep them confined to a small space. Personally, I find it fun to let them reproduce. Then I take them and plant them in other places around my yard.
There are also some very interesting varieties available for a more striking accent to your garden. One of these is Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’, named for obvious reasons. The picture below is old and I do not currently have any in my garden, though here is some I grew about a decade ago. You’ll see them at the bottom center of the picture. They are also zone 7 hardy.
Here is one of my favorite cultivars. Colocasia esculenta ‘Fontanesii’ is has a deep green color with purplish-black stems. They tend to clump more than spread. Unlike the previous two cultivars, which have a thin and “dry” texture, the ‘Fontanesii’ cultivar is thick and rubbery. The fronds will give off a polished shine. They are a bit more tender taking down to zone 8a temperatures. They have always returned for me in my Memphis gardens. They may be more difficult to grow in cooler parts of Tennessee. Mulching them in early winter after the first freezes kill them to the ground will ensure their return in the spring. They are seen here at the very center of the picture.
Here’s one that I tried and succeeded with for a few years in Memphis about ten years ago. The Alocasia genus is one of upright elephant ears which can reach enormous sizes. The clump I had came back after a few winters until I left my parents home. Somewhere along the way, it did not come back. I seem to recall it may have been due to rain and rot during one winter. It was in a spot that received no winter sun, so it could not dry out. Sometimes location is as big of a factor as temperatures and water. I bought an Alocasia ‘Calidora’ in spring of 2015 to try out. We will see how it does. I am told that it is rather tender so it may not return in my 7b location east of Memphis. I will be sure to keep some in the garage to ensure I don’t lose my investment.
When making new beds for tropical plants, don’t over look elephant ears, especially Colocasias, as excellent options for the Memphis climate. The are a unique choice for the “mid level” of your garden.