Elephant ears in Bel Air

Drive past the home of Barbara and Charles Anderson, just south of Bel Air, and you might think part of their front yard has been transported from the tropics.

The Andersons have, indeed, brought a piece of the tropics to Harford County, in the form of the elephant ear plant, which is part of the Colocasia genus of plants grown from tubers that are common in the tropics and southeastern U.S.

"They're exotics," said Barbara Anderson, who planted several bulbs in beds along the edge of her front yard. "They're not the norm around here."

She planted the bulbs during the spring, and the plants have grown leaves that resemble the floppy ears of an elephant. Anderson estimated they are about 3 to 4 feet long.

"We've had a lot of comments on this thing, my Lord," her husband, Charles, said.

Charles Anderson served as Harford's first county executive during the mid and late 1970s; he was a member of the former Board of County Commissioners, the predecessor to the Harford County Council, before becoming county executive.

Today, he works with the Maryland Aviation Administration, and Barbara Anderson is a senior technical advisor with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in Woodlawn.

Their front yard is dotted with varieties of flowers and trees, and Barbara Anderson said she has planted elephant ears in prior years.

She showed off the bright green elephant ears one morning last week.

The plant is sensitive to frost, and Barbara Anderson said she planted this year's bulbs in May to avoid any risk of frost.

Anderson said an elephant ear bulb is about the size of a softball; they can be taken up in the fall, after they finish growing, and stored in a dry place for the next season.

"It's sort of like a one-time investment," she said.

Anderson held the leaves like large sheets of paper; they can grow at least 3 feet long, and the plants can measure 6 feet high, according to an article posted on Southern Living's website.

"Grow elephant's ears en masse for a big show of texture and color, or use one as a specimen for a striking accent," Gene B. Bussell of Southern Living wrote in the article.

The plants can be grown in gardens, water gardens or pots, according to Southern Living.

Two elephant ears had been planted along the edge of the Andersons' front yard, and had grown to be the largest. A third smaller and younger plant is growing under a tree near their driveway to the side of the yard.

Anderson said the plants are "heavily dependent on water, lots of water," and need partial sunlight for growth.

She said the largest elephant ear appeared to be where it was getting the ideal amount of sunlight.

"This one, apparently, is getting the right amount of sun and shade," Anderson said.

She waters the plants nearly every day.

The leaves are wrapped around stalks on the plant, and unfurl as they grow.

The leaves on the Andersons' plants were still bright green last week, and some had yet to unfurl; white flowers were also blooming.

Barbara Anderson said "the most upsetting part" about tending elephant ears is having to cut off the leaves as the weather cools.

"You have a beautiful plant there, and you have to cut it down," she said.

Anderson said the leaves must be cut away to get back to the bulb.

She does not like "to cut those pretty leaves off, but they'll just turn yellow and die as soon as the first frost hits."

"It's sort of like, when they go away, that really is the end of summer," Anderson said.

The plants are not native to the United States, and have been listed as invasive in Texas and Florida, for their penchant for overshadowing local native plant species.

The plants, which grow from a tuber that is a staple of local people's diet in the tropics, are native to India and Southeast Asia, and were transported to the U.S. in 1910, according to a 2011 article on The Nature Conservancy's website.

"With its preference for wet, moist areas, it gravitates to wetlands and the banks of lakes and streams to form dense and ever-spreading colonies," the article, for which an author was not identified, stated. "The colonies can become thick enough to completely eliminate native stream side plants, altering the natural habitat and reducing biodiversity."

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