In the garden: make a statement with a pachyderm plant


If you feel the need to make a dramatic entrance, that is, at the entrance to your garden, there is a plant for you.

On the porch, a tall balcony, or anywhere you place it, Colocasia esculenta will make a dramatic statement. Its common name elephant ears is description enough. Although not the actual size of an elephant’s ears, its leaves will be large if the plant is grown successfully. Under the right conditions, Colocasia can outgrow Tom Cruise.

Not only are its leaves large, but depending on the variety, their color can be magnificent. I bought one recently called Black Beauty and it sure is. I’m waiting for it to be warmer before putting it outside. I’m going to repot it in a big planter because the colocasia likes to grow, pushing out those huge droopy ears – I mean the leaves. It could produce a flower-like jack-in-the-desk, although the flowers are not prominent. It’s the leaves that make the show.

Colocasia will be familiar to you in another form than taro, the root vegetable we buy at the grocery store. Esculenta, the name of the species, means edible in Latin. You can even grow your own from one of these tubers, although it won’t give the spectacular foliage of a cultivated variety. Although we call taro a tuber, like a potato, it is actually a bulb.

The name taro comes from the Maori language of New Zealand. It had been cultivated there for a long time, as well as throughout the southern hemisphere, in Africa and Asia, where it is thought to have originated. A staple food, it is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants. It’s not possible to grow it as a food crop here, because taro needs a few hundred frost-free days – we’re lucky to have 150. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat the tuber late in the season when frost has killed the foliage.

But rather than eating it, remove the tuber from the pot or garden, clean the soil and roots, then simply store it in a cool, dry place like a basement or fruit cellar. In early spring, replant it and when the weather and soil are warm enough, it can go back outside. This way, the tuber will increase in size every year, resulting in a plant that will grow to its maximum height. It would be really dramatic.

However, before that happens, you need to keep the plant healthy, which isn’t difficult — it’s an easy plant. It grows best in moist soil, even in a swampy area. It can be placed in the shallow end of a pond, although Colocasia does best in the garden or in a planter. Fertilize occasionally and the leaves will be larger; if you fertilize too much, the tips of the leaves will turn brown. Full sun is fine, unless the plant has dark colored leaves like Black Beauty. There are varieties with solid green leaves and brightly colored hybrids.

The last one I grew was White Lava, a strain with, as the name suggests, a hint of white running down the large green leaves. I intended to keep it all winter, but I might as well have eaten it. I grouped it with other plants, watered it by mistake, and the tuber turned into mush in the pot. I will be more careful next winter.

Another plant that closely resembles colocasia is alocasia. As a result, they are often grouped together at the garden centre. The most obvious difference is that the leaves of colocasia point downwards while those of alocasia point upwards. A more important distinction is that the tubers of most varieties of alocasia, unlike colocasia, are not edible. They are even poisonous. Eat an alocasia tuber and you could have a spectacular exit.

I wonder what’s for supper.


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