Looking for a dynamite display of color and foliage for that shady area in your yard or garden? Look no further than caladium plants with their heart-shaped leaves. Learn how to grow and care for these leafy perennials.
Caladium is a genus of tropical perennial plants in the family Araceae. They are commonly known as Elephant Ears, but other plants also use that name, like Alocasia, Colocasia–the famous giant black elephant ear–and Xanthosoma. Check for the Caladium name on the product description to be sure. They are sometimes broken into two broad categories: fancy leaf and lance or strap leaf. Fancy leaf varieties are the ones with those huge, heart-shaped leaves with all the bright colors and variations.
Native to Central and South America, these tropical tubers are hardy to USDA zone 7 and warmer. So, many gardeners who live north of zone 7 will grow caladium as an annual. Or, the tubers can be dug up for fall and stored over winter as bulbs. They provide impressive color and size while growing in those shadier parts of your garden or beds where other plants don’t want to thrive.
But many folks grow caladiums in containers, putting the colorful pots in shady spots. Caladiums are also popular as colorful houseplants indoors.
A Note About Caladium Tubers
Caladium tubers are covered in buds; basically, the larger the tuber, the more foliage it will produce. They are graded into four sizes, with the smallest being #2, then moving up to #1, Jumbo, and occasionally, Mammoth.
Mixed bags of caladium tubers sold at big box stores are often smaller #2 tubers. They’ll still grow and provide beautiful foliage, but likely not as much of it. Expect to pay premium prices for the larger #1 and up selections.
To show off your caladiums, plant several tubers of the same variety in one location and create a large, impactful show of foliage, along with ferns or coleus. They also look great paired with impatiens or fuchsias, whose flowers complement the caladiums’ assorted pinks, reds, greens, and whites.
Not many plants will live in the less-sunny spots of your property and still bring such vivid color and interest. Caladiums like partial shade the best. A site with 2 to 4 hours of gentle morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled all-day light is prime.
Older varieties won’t do well in full sun and can show leaf scorch. However, some newer varieties can handle partial sun quite well, especially in more northern areas where the sun’s rays are less powerful.
Give them a site with well-draining soil, preferably light in texture and rich in organic matter. As tropical plants, caladiums like evenly moist soil. Provide ample compost or other easily broken down organic material like shredded leaves. They enjoy slightly acidic to acidic soil best, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.
For most of the United States, caladiums should be woken up in early to mid-spring indoors. Start them in pots 4 to 6 weeks before your last frost date. In more tropical climates, they can be planted directly outdoors once soil temperatures have warmed to 50 degrees to 70 degrees (ideally, the latter).
Don’t be in too much of a rush to get those caladiums outdoors, whether planting bulbs or setting containerized plants outside. They won’t grow much, if at all, until the temperature and soil warms.
How to Plant Caladiums
Caladiums are usually purchased as tubers. However, some garden centers will have started plants available as nursery stock, which can be transplanted outside the same as any other plant.
To plant caladium tubers indoors:
Prepare enough containers for your tubers. Small tubers can share a pot, but larger ones should have their own. Any high-quality potting mix is fine. Amend it with vermiculite or perlite to help with drainage if needed.
Set all your tubers out for inspection, right side up. To tell which side is “up,” look for eyes and a knobby, bumpy appearance. That bumpy side with the eyes is the top.
Check for any rot, dehydration, or other problems. Discard any tubers which are not firm.
Make a hole in the potting mix and place the tuber, right side up, in the soil. Cover with about an inch of potting mix and water so the soil is moist but not wet. Use gentle but firm pressure to seat the tuber and prevent air pockets.
Place the pots in a warm and bright location. Caladium tubers are sleepy and like to hit the snooze button. They may take 4-6 weeks to send up new growth.
Caladiums started in pots can be transplanted directly into garden beds when the soil and weather are warm. Plant them deep enough that the tuber is about two inches below the soil level.
They can also be moved to larger pots and grown in a container garden. If you have heavy clay soil, the container can be sunk into the ground, mimicking in-ground planting but leaving the plant in the pot. Then lift the entire pot in the fall.
Growing caladiums is as easy as planting them and then admiring them all summer. Well, almost. They really are a low-effort plant to add to your garden.
Provide even, slightly moist conditions. The easiest way to assist rainfall in achieving this is to mulch. Mulch will keep the soil from overheating and even out soil moisture fluctuations. During dry spells, provide supplemental water as needed.
Caladiums are heavy feeders. Compost and organic mulch will help in-ground plants. For container-grown caladiums, provide fertilizer biweekly during the growing season when watering or a slow-release fertilizer according to the label instructions.
Most problems with caladiums, including drooping, leaf yellowing, or leaf browning, stem from water issues–either too much or too little. If you don’t notice problems with insects or other diseases, pay more attention to soil moisture. Check with your finger before watering. If the top inch of soil feels dry, it’s time to water.
To dig up and store caladium tubers
Those of us who don’t garden in the tropical portions of the country will need to bring our caladiums indoors for the winter. You’ll want to do so prior to the first frost or before the soil temps drop below 55 degrees.
Using a hand trowel, carefully lift the caladium tubers from the ground. Start a few inches from the plant to minimize the likelihood of cutting the tuber with your tool.
Gently brush off most soil from the tubers.
Cut off all leaves and roots with clean shears or another sharp tool.
Allow the tubers to cure by leaving them in a warm, dry, shady spot for about a week.
Store them in a mesh bag or a tub with wood shavings, shredded paper, or other similar materials. Check them periodically throughout the winter to ensure the conditions are not too humid, which could cause tubers to rot or mold.
Ideal caladium tuber storage temps are about 55 degrees, so a basement or cool corner closet can work well. If bringing in potted caladiums, they can be left in their pots and stored in either light or dark conditions. Stop watering as they go dormant.
‘White Queen’ is a classic with large leaves displaying green margins, white leaf bodies, and red veining.
‘Rose Glow’ does well in containers or in-ground. Bicolor leaves look like a slice of watermelon–green at the edges and dusky pink in the middle.
‘Candyland’ tolerates more sunshine and displays artistic three-color leaves of deep green, white, and pink.
‘Moonlight’ is another more sun-tolerant variety. Its leaves are almost entirely white, with only the edge and veins outlined in green.
Wit and Wisdom
Caladiums can be propagated by dividing bulbs—sort of like cutting up a potato to plant. Each piece of tuber needs an eye.
Unlike some other bulb plants, caladiums don’t spread or multiply. They won’t take over your garden, even in tropical climates.
Some people find caladium sap to be a skin irritant, so you may wish to wear gloves. If eaten, caladiums are toxic to pets (and us) because they contain calcium oxalates.
Caladiums are not bothered much by pests. Most issues involve root rot of the tubers due to overly moist conditions.