We're all ears: Alocasia brings tropical largess to the garden
By Nara Schoenberg
Big, bold and unabashedly tropical, Alocasia, also known as Elephant's Ear, isn't for the timid or traditional. But if you're in the market for a horticultural flourish, it's hard to beat the oversize heart-shaped leaves in shades of purple, black-green, lime and burgundy.
Alocasia (al-oh-KAY-shuh), which hails from as far away as Malaysia and Borneo, can give you a soaring fountain of foliage, reaching more than 5 feet in the air. Varieties of the smaller species (think a foot or so tall) are often large in impact, offering, say, dark green leaves veined in icy white.
"It's a great plant for the background, along a fence or even in the center of a bed to give it some height," says Tim Pollak, an outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. "And they can serve as a great focal point for a bed or container."
The plants flourish in heat and humidity and thrive in both containers and beds. Many can easily grow 2 to 3 feet in a single hot summer. They can be grown outdoors year-round in Zones 10 and 11; in chillier climates, they can overwinter indoors when temperatures drop, either as potted plants or stored as bulblike tubers to replant the following growing season.
Steve Meyer, a horticulturist at Chicago's Lincoln Park Conservatory,keeps his A. amazonica ("African Mask"), in a relatively small 6-inch pot. The plant winters inside. In the summer, he just slips the pot into a bigger outdoor container alongside pots of ivy and impatiens. He puts a little soil in between the pots for an (almost) instant arrangement.
Tony Fulmer, retail manager of Chalet, garden center in Wilmette, says that many common varieties can grow to 5 feet tall.
It helps to get them potted/planted and outside as soon as possible, but not until nighttime temperatures are regularly above 60 degrees. Regularly apply a complete fertilizer with nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. He recommends pairing Alocasia--large and small--with "lower-profile" plants that don't detract from their strong architecture and showstopping foliage.
"They give wonderful color and they also give great texture," he says. "You put one in a pot and work other things around the base."
Wait until temperatures go down to 40 degrees (light frost). This will set the tuber in motion for dormancy.
If you plan to store the bulblike tubers, first remove the foliage. Let them sit in the pot for two or three days before removing them from the soil.
After you remove the tubers from the soil, let them air-dry for two or three days.
Store them in a cool, dark place, where temperatures will remain in the 50s, such as a basement--one expert recommended storing them in a box covered with shredded bark.
If you choose to bring the whole plant inside for the winter, consider spraying it for mites before you do. Many like a bright window. Alocasia likes a moist environment--some homes can be extremely dry indoors during the winter. If you don't have a humidifier adding moisture to the air, mist the plant regularly. Water regularly, and don't let the soil dry out between waterings. Use houseplant fertilizer.
Look for a shady spot to park this plant. Most varieties prefer shade or partial shade.
Keep the soil on the moist side. Don't let it dry out.
Fertilize every two or three weeks. If the plant is getting good light, use a higher-nitrogen fertilizer.
If you're putting the plant in a container, the largest varieties can grow to 5 feet, so use a pot that's big enough (at least 16 inches).
In a garden bed, Alocasia will dominate the space, so plant companions accordingly. White Flower Farm's Web site ( whiteflowerfarm.com) suggests coleus, plectranthus, begonias and any other annuals and perennials that prefer partial shade.