As the name rightly suggests, elephant ear plants are characterized by large leaves. In fact, they are different species that belong to the most diverse family of tropical plants called Araceae. This large family consists of around 107 genera and over 3700 species, which are otherwise known as aroids. Some plants that belong to this family possess large leaves that resemble elephant ears in shape. Such plants are commonly known as elephant ear plants. This feature is mostly seen in plants that belong to genera Alocasia, Xanthosoma, Philodendron, Anthurium, Caladium, Monstera and Colocasia.
While most of these plants have large leaves, they differ in size and color. While the leaves of some Anthurium and Alocasia species have a length of around 12 feet, some of the Philodendron and Xanthosoma species have leaves that grow to a length of six feet. When grown as garden plants, you cannot expect such large-sized leaves, which are seen in plants that grow in the wild. The genus Caladium has plants with moderately large leaves, but there are plants with small leaves too. So if you are searching for an elephant ear plant of your choice, it is always better to have a basic understanding about these plants, and the genus which they belong to. This will help you to identify the plant of your choice.
Elephant Ear Plants Classified as per the Genus
Alocasia: This is a genus that has around 80 species of plants that are natives to Asia, Oceania and South America. These plants are rhizomatous or bulbous perennials with large, heart-shaped or arrow-headed leaves that grow on long petioles. In most species, the leaves have large and prominent veins which may differ in color. These plants produce anthurium-like flowers that are inconspicuous; and each flower consists of a spadix (floral column), which is often covered by a hood-like spathe that is pale green or white. These flowers have short stalks and are often found hidden in the large foliage. Most of the plants of the genus Alocasia are good for frost-free areas, and can be grown in containers or greenhouses.
These plants with beautiful large leaves impart a tropical feeling, and should be planted in locations with partial to full shade and organic, well-drained soil. Most of these plants tolerate wet conditions and deep shade. Some of them withstand full sun, but they are sensitive to frost and winds. Even though some parts of these plants are considered edible, there are some poisonous species too. If you are not aware of the proper method of cleaning and cooking, refrain from consuming these plants, to avoid health hazards. The most popular plants of this genus are Alocasia macrorrhiza or giant taro, Alocasia plumbeahas with purple leaves, and Alocasia X amazonica with dark green leaves and thick light green veins.
Colocasia: Various species of the genus Colocasia are widely grown, especially in the tropical regions; and are known in different names, like taro, black magic, wild taro, black taro, dalo, dasheen, calaloo, eddy, and potato of the tropics. They are popular as ornamental plants as well as a food source. The corms (short, vertical, swollen underground plant stem that serves as a storage organ of some plants) and leaves are cooked and used as food. Avoid consumption of colocasia plants, if you don't know the correct way of cooking. These plants are also popular as elephant ear plants as the leaves of some species are very large. There are more than 25 species in this genus.
In this genus, Colocasia esculenta is the most popular and widely grown plant which is otherwise known as taro or elephant ear plant. There are over 200 cultivars of Colocasia esculenta, which is a highly variable species with different leaf forms and sizes. While some species have very large leaves, others have comparatively smaller leaves. The color of the leaves can vary from green, black, purple, or bluish-black. The leaves can be arrow-headed or oval. In most plants, there is a split at the base of the leaves where the petioles are attached. The flowers are more or less like Alocasia flowers. It is easy to grow Colocasia in tropical and semi-tropical areas, but they can also be grown in cold regions, though they become dormant during the winters. These tropical plants need regular watering and slightly acidic soil for a healthy growth.
Xanthosoma: This genus consists of around 50 species of tropical plants, which are natives to the tropical America. Most plants in this genus are grown for their tubers, that are used as food by the local people; and are known as malanga, new cocoyam, tannia, tannier, yautía, macabo, and taioba. Xanthosoma sagittifolium plants are commonly seen. Apart from agricultural purposes, some species of this genus are also grown as ornamental plants, and are popular as elephant ear plants for their large leaves. Though plants of Xanthosoma genus resemble those belonging to the genus Colocasia, there are some basic differences between them. The leaves of the latter are peltate - the petiole joins with the leaf at a place which is away from the edge. In case of Xanthosoma, the petioles join the leaves at their notched edges. The length of the leaves of these plants may range between one to six feet. The tubers are formed at the base of the plant as a corm with smaller cormels. Mostly used for agricultural purposes, some species with large foliage are used for landscaping too. If you want to grow them as outdoor plants, you have to store the corms indoors during winters and plant them during spring.
Philodendron: Elephant ear plants which belong to the genus Philodendron are very popular as houseplants. This genus consists of around 900 species, and is considered as the second largest genus of the family Araceae. The word Philodendron means tree-loving, and most of the species are found attached to trees either in epiphytic forms, or rooted in soil and attached to trees for support. The leaves are typically heart-shaped and smaller when they emerge. The mature leaves are very large and lobed with holes or divisions. These alternate leaves emerge from sheath-like structures called cataphylls. Most of the plants of Philodendron genus develop aerial roots.
There are many popular varieties of philodendron which include hybrids too. Among them are the heart leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum), which is a tender evergreen vine from Brazil, with shiny green leaves and slender stems. Another popular species is the cut leaf philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum), which is a tree-like evergreen shrub with large, elephant-ear like leaves. The plants belonging to the genus Philodendron are very sensitive and should be planted outside in places with warm weather. They need bright, filtered light or full shade, and moist and well-drained soil. They should be watered well, but the soil should not be soggy. If you want to grow these elephant ear plants in containers, make sure that the potting soil offers good drainage, and the plant is getting bright, but indirect sunlight. You have to prune the plant regularly to control the unwanted growth.
Anthurium: This is the largest genus of the family Araceae, with more than 1000 species, and still many more are being discovered every year. Most of these plants are natives to South and Central America. These plants are seen in various forms, but most of them are evergreen, bushy or climbing epiphytes, with roots hanging to the ground. These plants have single leaves which can be oval, heart-shaped or spatula-shaped. While some species have very thick leaves, others have thin ones; and the leaves have a matte or glossy look. Anthurium leaves can move to track the Sun. Some of these plants with large leaves are also referred to as elephant ear plants.
Unlike the plants in other genera of the family Araceae, Anthurium species sport colorful spathe, which are popular as the flowers of these plants. Actually, this petal-like colorful part is the spathe that covers the actual inflorescence. The spathe is large and leathery, and comes in various colors in different species. There are many popular varieties, like Anthurium andraeanum, Anthurium crystallinum and Anthurium scherzerianum. These plants require bright and indirect light, moist and well-drained soil and high humidity. Watering and fertilization is a must during the growing season. Outdoor plants should be protected from direct sunlight.
Caladium: This genus consists of around seven species, which are very popular for the large, showy and colorful leaves. They are otherwise known as elephant ear plants, heart of Jesus or angel wings. The plants that belong to this genus are natives to Brazil and its surrounding regions. In the wild, these plants grow up to a height of around three feet, and the leaves have a length of around two feet. They are widely grown for ornamental purposes, and the arrowhead-shaped leaves come in a wide range of sizes and colors, like white, red, pink, green, rose, silver, and bronze. You may find thousands of cultivars of these plants.
For a healthy growth, these plants need fertile and moist soil, which is well-drained. They should be grown in partial sun and partial shade. Most of these plants do not tolerate full sun. In tropical climates, these plants can be grown in the ground. In other parts, it is better to dig out the tubers during the fall when the leaves die, and store the tubers indoors to be planted in the winters.
Monstera: This genus has around 22 species of plants which are characterized by very large leaves with holes. This genus got its name from the Latin word, which means monstrous, after the huge leaves. They are natives to the tropical America, and are evergreen vines which can grow to a height of around 65 feet, attaching to trees using their aerial roots. The alternate leaves are often dark green, and their length can range between 0.5 to 2.5 feet; with some species growing leaves with a length of around four feet. Most of these plants have leaves with holes, and the inflorescence produce fruits which are edible in some species, especially Monstera deliciosa. The ripe fruits of Monstera deliciosa are edible and taste like a mix of banana and pineapple. These plants require a temperature that ranges between 65 to 85°F, with high humidity and full shade. They cannot tolerate frost and may die in such conditions. The growth will stop as the temperature dips below 50°F. They have to be planted outdoors for flowering, which happens after three years of planting, and the fruits will take around one year to ripen.
In short, elephant ear plants do not belong to a single genus, but are several plants belonging to various genera of the family Araceae. However, they are very popular for the large and colorful leaves with different designs, and some of them can be used for indoor gardening too.