On Gardening: Create a Caribbean paradise in your backyard with elephant ear plants

June 27, 2016

Portora elephant ear produces giant leaves with scalloped margins.

This has been a banner year for tropical plant nuts like me as Regal Shields, Borneo Giant, and Portora just to name a few started showing up in area garden centers. These are just a few of the elephant ears that lured the gardeners in my family to not only bring out the pocketbook but to redesign for the lush look of the islands.

If you love bold foliage then you have to be thrilled as to what is happening in the green industry. Just as new petunias, begonias, and lantanas are being brought to the market, so are foliage plants that we only dreamed about.

Borneo Giantís leaves defy logic for their size and proportion to other plants. Already those that I have seen in zone 8 gardens keep me mesmerized. The photos I have seen of the monolithic sized plants in tropical areas simply drive me into some kind of horticultural frenzy.

Borneo Giant is known botanically as Alocasia macrorrhiza and is cold hardy to zone 7b. Unbelievably it produces ears or leaves that will reach 5 feet in width with a plant 7 to 10 feet in height. Itís not hard to see why this plant has quickly become the talk of the gardening world.

Almost as impressive in size is the Alocasia portora. This one is a hybrid of Alocasia ordora and Alocasia portei and is also cold hardy to zone 7 b. Visitors to the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah are stunned when they see 5 to 6-foot trunks and the rigid upright stature of this elephant ear. The leaves are enormous and scalloped, giving them a most exotic look in a bed of fantastic foliage.

While I treasure both of those it is Regal Shields that completely captured my heart this year, I can tell it has become the plant I can never be without. Like Alocasia portora, it has Alocasia ordora as one parent but differs in that the other is Alocasia reginula ĎBlack Velvetí. The result known as Regal Shields has velvety deep dark green leaves that are almost black. The undersides of the leaves have a burgundy sheen and lime green mid-ribs.

What I love most about it is that it forms a colony 4-feet tall and 5 feet large leaves reach 2 feet plus. Iím growing mine where they receive full sun in the heat of the day which seems to make them thrive even more. This one is supposedly not as cold hardy as the others but I suspect with good winter drainage it will surprise a lot of gardeners. Iíve seen it return easily in zone 8 but the winter was mild. Even in colder climates, youíll find them easy to dig and store for winter protection and spring planting.

For all of our tropical foliage plants we recommend that the soil should be fertile, organic rich, and well drained especially for winter survival. If yours is tight and heavy then incorporate 3 to 4 inches of organic matter for good aeration and drainage or plant on raised beds like commercial landscapers.

While you are preparing your bed work in a slow release pre-plant fertilizer, like a 10-10-10 with minor nutrients. Use about 2 pounds per 100 square feet of bed space. You may have been used to buying bulbs of the old standard colocasia varieties but these new Alocasia hybrids are being sold as container-grown plants. If you still buy bulbs make sure to plant them deep enough so that the top of the bulb is 2 inches below the soil. If you are planting container-grown plants then set them at the same depth they are growing in the container.

At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, we use Portora to give added bold texture and interest in pollinator gardens where we have milkweeds, various acanthus species, and hummingbird mints. We are also growing them in our Cottage Garden with shrimp plants, plumbago, and grand crinum lilies.

At my home, I have created all foliage gardens where Portora is combined with Regal Shields, lime green Elena, the Red Abyssinian banana, Campfire coleus, Little Ruby alternanthera and Gold Mound duranta. It is truly a-foliage frenzy.

You may have never considered going to a garden center to purchase elephant ears by variety or species, but it is a new and wonderful day. It is time to go shopping and see if you can create a corner of a Caribbean paradise in your backyard.



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