Nothing screams ‘tropical’ to me quite like the sprawling sail-like leaves of an elephant ear plant. They’re a versatile group, with a type for just about any corner of your home or garden. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite types!
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How many types of elephant ears are there?
Botanists have discovered hundreds of different types of elephant ear plants. They range from the common taro (Colocasia esculenta) to the compact and elegant Bambino (Alocasia Bambino). They can be as large as six to eight feet tall or small enough to fit in a desktop pot.
“The most important thing to remember is that these elephant’s ear like full sun unless they are grown in very hot climates, and they love water and nutrients. The more you feed it, the larger it will grow. You can situate it by the damp edge of a pond and it will thrive. It does superbly in average garden soil or in a large container as long as you remember to keep it well-watered during the heat of the summer.”Sonia Uyterhoeven, New York Botanical Gardens Gardener for Public Education
What is an Elephant Ear Plant?
Elephant ears are a group of luscious tropical plants with wide, elephantine leaves. They love rich, moist soil and warm balmy days, making them a perfect choice for indoor gardening or as feature plants for those lucky enough to live in a warm climate.
Depending on the type, elephant ear plants come from one of three families – Alocasia, Colocasia, or Xanthosoma. Between them, these three groups contain over 250 different species and varieties, with ever more different types being discovered or developed each year. Colocasias especially are heavily cultivated as a food crop – you’d know it better than taro!
Nine Best Elephant Ear Varieties
1. Taro (Colocasia esculenta)
Better known as taro, this is one of the most commonly cultivated food crops in the world, feeding millions worldwide. It gets the number one spot purely on that alone – without taro, there’d be a lot hungrier people in the world.
They love bright light and moist soils, so grow well in damp patches of the garden that have poor drainage. They’ll settle in for the long haul, sending up massive five- and six-foot leaves through the growing season. They’re best suited for USDA Hardiness Zone 8a through to 11.
It’s also available in dozens of different cultivars for the home gardener. I’m personally quite partial to the traditional form, but for something unusual consider the ‘Black Magic’ cultivar with its rich violet leaves or the variegated Mojito.
2. Alocasia Kris (Alocasia sanderiana)
Known more commonly as the kris plant, this is a compact alocasia commonly kept as an indoor plant. They average about a foot or so in height. Their best feature is their leaves, with wildly wiggly edges and high-contrast stripes.
Kris loves the same sort of conditions we do – warm, with a bit of moisture in the air, and while love good bright light, they’ll burn if left in direct sun. Some folks do struggle a bit to provide them with adequate humidity – the don’t like to dry out!
3. Alocasia African Mask (Alocasia amazonica)
African Mask plants are thought to be a commercial hybrid, bred to maximize their dramatic leaves. And dramatic they are! They’re larger than the Kris, up to two feet, with less pronounced wiggling to the leaf edge.
It’s an adaptable species, with a wide array of cultivars to choose from. ‘Polly’ is particularly popular right now, a real standout in the current indoor plant craze. The diminutive ‘Bambino’ cultivar is also widely grown, small enough to bring a bit of the tropics to cramped growing environments like apartments.
A. amazonica is a bit tougher than Kris, too, and can handle being outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11. For the rest of us, they’ll thrive indoors in nice loamy soil with good drainage and consistently warm temperatures.
4. Alocasia Black Velvet (Alocasia reginula)
Black Velvet has to be my favorite of indoor elephant ears. Compact and charming, it’s known for spectacular leaves that range from rich emeralds and jades right through to a true, deep black. They’re extremely eye-catching, especially when positioned with other, brighter-leaved plants. They’ll reach a foot or so in height when mature.
They’re surprisingly easy to care for, too. They need rich, moist soils, warm temperatures and moderate to high humidity that mimics their Borneo jungle homeland. They’ll do best in well in bright, indirect light, but enjoy a sneaky early morning sunbeam, too. A dose of very bright light will help keep those dark leaves their gothic best.
5. Alocasia Frydek (Alocasia micholitziana)
Now this is a real treat. Frydek is a medium-sized elephant ear, well suited to indoor cultivation. It has deep green leaves with an almost velvety texture, making them a truly luxurious choice for the indoor gardener. When mature, they’ll hit three feet with just as large a spread, making them an excellent feature plant in any tropical collection.
Like most alocasias, they like rich, loamy soils that drain well, and need to be kept warm and humid. They’re a bit fussier about humidity than most, so do well grouped into tropical arrangements, or placed near a humidifier to really ensure they get what they need.
6. Dragon Scale (Alocasia baginda)
The Dragon Scale lives up to its name – a fierce-looking plant with richly textured, dark leaves. It’s hard to convey in words exactly how captivating these are in person! Their leaves range in color from silver to black, ripping with almost iridescent shine. The Silver Dragon cultivar is especially eye-catching, with almost pure white leaves.
They’re from Indonesia, another rainforest specialist. They love that rich but well draining soils, consistently warm days and humid nights. They can be quite challenging to grow indoors, as they like conditions hotter and damper than we do. They aren’t great roommates! But they’re a compact plant at no more than a foot, so can provide a deeply dramatic feature when grown in terrariums or under a good-sized cloche.
Alocasia zebrina is a medium-sized elephant ear plant with a twist – hiding beneath arrow-shaped leaves are cheerfully striped stems. They’re slow growers, taking up to five years to hit their full five feet of height, and best suited to grow
Mostly found in the Philippines, they’re considered endangered in the wild. They grow quite comfortably in containers, making for a spectacular and eye-catching feature. They like the same sort of comfortably warm temperatures and moderate humidity, so they deliver a lot of visual drama without the fuss of other Alocasias.
8. Giant Taro (Alocasia macrorhiza)
Go big or go home! Giant Taro is a monster of a plant, reaching 15 feet without breaking stride. Their leaves are likewise huge, massive sails two and three feet across. Obviously, this limits them to outdoor cultivation, where they’ll thrive in bright, marshy corners of the garden.
Like all elephant ears, they do best in warm climates, so if you’re in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11 they’ll provide a truly impressive display through the growing season. There are quite a few different varieties to choose from, with the Black Stem variety being my favorite for its striking, dark stalks.
What is the most popular elephant ear plant?
If you want to talk numbers, it’s hard to go past taro. It’s cultivated in huge swathes all over the world as a food crop, so at any given time there are millions of them growing vigorously in paddocks and fields.
That said, the recent indoor plant craze has prompted a real interest in the other, smaller elephant ear varieties. The Amazonia cultivars, especially Polly and Bambino, are all over social media, so they certainly meet the criteria for most popular.
Is elephant ear same as Alocasia?
Elephant Ear is a collective name that describes a whole heap of different plants, including the popular colocasia. Some folks often refer to any broad-leafed annual as an elephant ear, so while technically incorrect it’s not uncommon to see caladiums and the like traded under that name.
How many colors of elephant ears are there?
Elephant ears come in an astonishing range of colors, from the dark black and purple leaves of the Black Magic Colocasia right through to almost white and silver from Alocasia Silver Dragon. Dark velvety greens and bright pale stripes, yellow splashes of variegation or striped stems – these guys have got it all.
I’m lucky to have a lovely Black Velvet in a crisp white pot on my writing desk, its mix of purple and green leaves providing a nice change from the screen! It’s a real treat.
Are elephant ears toxic to touch?
You aren’t going to break out in hives if you touch an elephant ear plant, thankfully. Their leaves may contain a lot of oxalic acid, but unless you’re eating them raw you’ve got nothing to fear from them.
That said, it’s worth wearing gloves when working with them to prevent irritation to eyes and other sensitive tissue, or at the least wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
It’s hard keeping tropicals like elephant ears alive here in Ontario. But the versatility of the elephant ear family means even I’ve been lucky enough to have them enriching my home. That’s not to say I haven’t had my fair share of yellow leaves! But with a bit of practice, it won’t be long until you’re successful enough to propagate whole new plants, ready to share the joy with friends and family.