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Elephant Ear Care Guide

This article shares my elephant ear care guide.

My comprehensive elephant ear care guide

Elephant ears! Today’s article is all about the stunning elephant ear plants. If you’ve browsed your local nursery, you’ve probably seen an elephant ear or two. Despite there being a zillion different types of the plant, they are often just labeled “elephant ear.”

They are often marketed as good for pools and patios because they give off a beautiful tropical vibe with their dramatic foliage and ability to grow to very large sizes. Some varieties of the plant itself can grow quite large, but the most striking part is typically its massive leaves.

two elephant ear plants on a patio
beautiful small plant-filled patio

What is an elephant ear plant?

Before we get started, I want to clear up exactly what I’m talking about when I say “elephant ears.” You’ll certainly see others online disagree with my definition…but it’s a widely accepted one. I try not to get too bent out of shape over Facebook plant group arguments.

When I say “elephant ears” I am talking mostly about colocasia and larger varieties of alocasia (not the smaller “jewel” varieties like the Alocasia Dragon Scale, for example—though the care needs are pretty much the same). You can also generally lump in xanthosoma and caladium.

Whatever the type you have, the plants are characterized by often very large leaves that resemble an elephant ear or a shield. The leaves emerge from stems that grow out of tubers below the soil’s surface—often referred to as “bulbs” or “corms.” Forgive me for using these terms interchangeably.

Depending on the type of elephant ear, it can be native to Southeast Asia, subtropical Asia, Australia, tropical areas of the Americas, and more. Different types of elephant ear plants have been widely cultivated and even naturalized around the world.

Such introduction to new environments has caused some problems. For example, some types of colocasia is invasive in wetlands along the U.S. Gulf coast. This isn’t likely to be a problem in most areas of the U.S., though. The plant only grows as a perennial (returning year after year) in the warmest grow zones.

Where I live, I can plant in the ground, but I’ll generally need to dig the bulb up to overwinter it indoors. For this reason, many choose to grow elephant ears as potted houseplant or potted annuals. There are lots of options.

regal shield elephant ear plant

Planting in the ground vs. pots

I’m going to break with my usual article format because this one will be a little different. I typically focus on caring for plants as houseplants, only touching on spring and summer outdoor care. However, elephant ear care is a little different. I actually do a lot of my elephant ear care outdoors.

And the first step to elephant ear care is knowing where you’ll put your plant. This depends on your preferences—pot or in the ground—what you want to do with the plant in the winter (if you have one), and more.

Elephant ear plants can grow just fine in both pots and in the ground. However, as with most potted plants, pot size can restrict your plant’s growth in some situations. If you are growing a large type of elephant ear, I recommend using a large pot so the plant can reach its fullest potential. A smaller pot is generally fine if you’re growing a smaller variety—say, a type of caladium.

If you grow your elephant ear plants in pots, you can also bring them indoors for the fall and winter. It’s also worth noting that you can still cut back elephant ear plants to bring indoors for storage—they’ll go dormant over the winter. You can also remove and store the tubers.

me standing next to a huge potted elephant ear plant

What’s your grow zone?

Generally, elephant ear plants may begin to suffer with sustained temperatures into the 50s Fahrenheit at night—in pots or in the ground. Frost will kill off the foliage in an instant. I highly recommend checking out the USDA plant hardiness map to figure out your grow zone and help inform your elephant ear planting decisions.

If you don’t live in the U.S. and are reading this, you can still check out the temperatures for each of the zones to determine which zone your climate aligns with. I will reference zones throughout the next few sections.

Elephant ear plants truly thrive in temperatures that don’t get below 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night, but you’ll probably be fine in U.S. grow zones 11 or higher—which isn’t much of the continental United States!

If you choose to plant your elephant ears in the ground, make sure to amend your native soil using some compost and top soil—at least that’s what I do here. We have a very thick, rocky, clay-based soil in Maryland, and I amend it before planting anything.

Alocasia Regal Shield
Alocasia Regal Shield

Can I leave my plants in the ground?

So you chose to plant them in the ground, congrats! You’re probably enjoying big, gorgeous foliage that has grown unfettered to impressive sizes. But if you live in the majority of the continental United States, you might be wondering what to do when fall rolls around.

Grow zones 8+

Can you leave your elephant ear plants in the ground? That depends on your grow zone. If you live in grow zones 8 or higher, you can let your plant’s foliage die back with the first frost. Then cut it off and insulate the plant’s tubers/bulbs with a layer of mulch.

This may not be necessary for well-established plants—we no longer cover our banana plants for the winter (zone 7), and they’re fine. In the spring, your plants will sprout like our banana plants do and regrow as perennials each year.

Grow zones 6 & under

However, if you live in zones 1 through 6, you’ll want to dig your elephant ear’s tubers up (see that linked guide for a tutorial) after the first frost and store them indoors. You can store the tubers in a paper bag indoors in a cool, dry place like an unfinished basement or garage.

They will stay dormant until you plant them back outside in the spring. Make sure you wait until after your last frost date to plant them.

large green colocasia on a patio

Grow zone 7

You might have noticed that I left grow zone 7 out. Here’s why—I’m grow zone 7, and I definitely feel like we’re an “on the fence” grow zone with a lot of plants. I’m riiight on the edge of 7a, though. My mom is zone 6b, and she’s a 5 minute drive away farther into the sticks.

As a zone 7 gardener, I recommend approaching overwintering elephant ear tubers based on your comfort level. Do you want to ensure your plant doesn’t die? Then dig it up and store it. Do you have a higher tolerance to potential loss? Leave it outdoors and see what happens!

If you are an “on the fence” zone 7 gardener like I am, I would love to hear if leaving your elephant ear tubers in the ground has been successful.

black colocasia in a pot
gorgeous black and green upright elephant ear

Can potted elephant ears survive winter?

Now let’s talk about potted elephant ear plants. Potting is a perfectly fine choice. Up until very recently, I kept all of my elephant ears in pots because I did not have the space to plant in the ground.

Potted elephant ears are unlikely to survive the winter outdoors if you live in most continental U.S. grow zones. Even the majority of Florida is zone 10 or below, meaning temperatures can drop into the 30s, and there is frost. The low temperatures only last about two months, though—so if you can drag your plants indoors for December and January, you’ll probably be fine.

For the majority of us, the window of low temperatures and frost danger is much longer. Many of you live with snow on the ground for a lot of the winter, too. So you must bring your potted elephant ear plants inside if you want them to survive.

alocasia polly plant
large elephant ear outdoors in a pot

Can potted elephant ears survive indoors?

So let’s talk a bit about indoor care. Of course, when I say “elephant ears,” I am referring to many different types of plants. Some tolerate indoor growing conditions better than others. So look up your specific plant to see tips on transitioning it to life as a houseplant.

That said, potted elephant ears can generally live happy lives indoors as houseplants. I have grown elephant ears indoors, and my parents have, too. They are more challenging to grow than some of my other houseplants, but my goal is usually to get them to spring and them put them back outside.

huge elephant ear plant growing indoors in a pot
My parents’ elephant ear plant growing indoors in a pot

Do elephant ear plants go dormant indoors?

Depending on the conditions in your home, it’s possible that your elephant ear plant will go dormant. These plants generally require a lot of light, warm temperatures, and high humidity to do well as houseplants. I don’t know about you, but that is not my house in the dead of zone 7a winters!

Another option is to let your elephant ear plant go dormant indoors. Elephant ears generally do not tolerate temperatures in the 50s very well. They may even throw a fit indoors in temperatures higher than that due to growing conditions.

If it appears your elephant ear is beginning to die off, don’t worry—it’s probably just the foliage. Don’t give it more water to try to perk it up; that can rot the tubers. Simply let the foliage die off and trim it. Then put the pot in a cool place. I recommend watering the tuber just a bit every month or so.

If the tuber stays healthy, you should be able to move the pot to a warm, sunny location in the spring and begin watering your bulb. It will sprout and grow a new plant.

huge elephant ear growing at the U.S. Botanic Garden
A gorgeous beast growing indoors at the U.S. Botanic Garden!

How much sun do elephant ear plants need?

Alright, now that I’ve covered planting your tubers, overwintering plants, and moving them indoors, let’s get into some care tips! Elephant ear plants generally do well in bright, indirect light. However, there are some varieties that thrive in the shade, while others enjoy full direct sun.

Look up the type of plant you have to see where you should plant the tuber or place your potted plant. If you are picking up a colocasia variety—which are commonly sold as potted patio plants in the spring and summer—you can put the plant in full sun.

Most types of elephant ears you’ll find in garden centers and nurseries will do well in bright shade. So, under a covered patio, pergola, or screened-in porch.

If you have your elephant ear plants potted indoors, they will do well with bright indirect light. Shoot for your sunniest window, and make sure to rotate the plant every few weeks to ensure even growth. I’ve found that elephant ear plants are prone to growing lopsided toward a light source.

tall potted upright elephant ear plant
In full sun
regal shield elephant ear
In partial sun

How often do you water elephant ears?

In general, elephant ear plants like to be moist but not wet. I recommend letting the top couple inches of soil dry out on indoor potted elephant ear plants. This translates to watering roughly once a week in the spring and summer and once every 10-14 days in the fall and winter where I am.

Outdoors, grab that hose! Potted elephant ear plants need near-daily watering where I am. In fact, water my potted elephant ears every day it doesn’t rain during the peak of our summers. I might water them every few days in the spring and early summer.

Elephant ears in the ground can largely be handled by mother nature. If you’ve just planted a tuber or transplanted a potted elephant ear to the ground, I recommend more regularly watering. And, of course, if you’re going through a period of drought, try to make up for what your plants aren’t getting through rain.

small green elephant ear

Can you overwater elephant ears?

Yes, you can definitely overwater elephant ears. This is especially an issue with elephant ear plants indoors. If you do not let the top few inches of soil dry out before watering the plant again, it can lead to crown, root, or stem rot. Wet soil accompanied by yellowing, wilting leaves is usually a sign of overwatering.

It’s harder to overwater an elephant ear outdoors. I check the soil in the spring and early summer to make sure it isn’t still wet before grabbing the hose. In July and August, I can pretty much guarantee the plant needs water daily if it hasn’t rained. I usually largely ignore garden plants in the ground unless it hasn’t rained and they begin wilting.

What is the best soil?

Indoors, any soil labeled “houseplant” or “indoor plant” will work great. These soils come pre-mixed with things like perlite and orchid bark to enhance drainage and oxygen flow, as well as coco coir (a good peat moss alternative) and vermiculite to help with aeration and lightweight water retention.

Outdoors, I amend our rocky, clay-based soil with some leaf compost and top soil. I simply dig a hole and back fill it with about 25% native dirt, 75% leaf compost and top soil. And don’t plant too deep—close to the surface is fine.

small regal shield leaf

Humidity needs

Elephant ear plants LOVE humidity. Mother nature takes care of that outdoors (usually), but indoors it can be more of a concern. You can mist your elephant ear plant indoors, and I have done so to help get plants through the winter. However, misting creates an only very temporary boost in ambient moisture. The best option is to add a humidifier to the room the plant is in.

Many types of elephant ear are extremely vulnerable to spider mites, too—and they thrive in warm, dry conditions. Like my house in the winter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve battled spider mites trying to get my alocasia plants especially through the winter! Adding humidity can help deter them.

Common elephant ear varieties

I mentioned how my definition of “elephant ear plants”—at least for this guide—includes the colocasia, alocasia, caladium, and xanthosoma plant genera. Each is a different type of genus that includes many different types of plants.

Below I will provide an overview of some species and varieties from each genus. This will hopefully give you an idea of what type of elephant ear plant you might have—or what type you might want to add to your collection 😉

Colocasia elephant ears

Colocasia plants (also often referred to as taro plants) are native to hot and humid areas of southeast Asia. Their leaves have the traditional elephant ear shape that grows up from a long stem, unwinding itself and then pointing toward the ground once it has its full shape.

Colocasia varieties can grow very large—up to 10 feet tall and wide—but keeping them in containers can stunt their growth. I have a large variety of Colocasia on the edge of my patio in a pot, and it tolerates full sun from about 12 PM on. Generally Colocasia varieties do well in full sun to part shade. They like a lot of water and will grow like weeds!

large green colocasia on a patio
colocasia living in water at a nursery

Alocasia elephant ears

Alocasia varieties, of which there are about 70, are smaller than their Colocasia cousins, growing up to 6 feet high and wide. Popular varieties include the Alocasia macrorrhizos (aka Giant Taro), which gets very large, and the Alocasia amazonica (aka Alocasia polly), which stays smaller.

Alocasia is the type of elephant ear that I have owned the most of. And that’s generally because they do stay smaller and can live indoors with fewer issues than colocasias can (at least in my experience). Below are a few pictures of alocasia plants I’ve grown, and I’ll drop some links below for different alocasia plants I have care guides on as well.

alocasia amazonica
Alocasia polly
Alocasia Wentii
Alocasia Wentii

Caladium elephant ears

The caladium genus consists of over 1,000 cultivars of the Caladium bicolor, which is native to South America. These plants also stay smaller than many types of colocasia do. Their leaves tend to be more arrowhead shaped, and they often have striking veining in white, pink, green, and red.

There are two main types of Caladiums: fancy-leaf and lance-leaf. Fancy-leaf Caladiums have large heart-shaped leaves with long stems. Lance-leaf Caladiums have smaller, usually ruffled-edge leaves on shorter stems—and they tend to be smaller plants in general. 

In general, caladiums prefer a shadier spot outdoors. So they are a good choice if you have a covered spot you want to add an elephant ear plant to. Here’s one I grew in a pot under our covered patio. Caladiums have my heart, but they are much less commonly grown indoors.

white and green caladium
white and green caladium
pink and green caladium

Xanthosoma elephant ears

The xanthosoma genus is the one I’m least familiar with. It is native to tropical areas of the Americas but has been widely cultivated and naturalized elsewhere. Xanthosoma plants can get very large with huge leaves, or they can make lovely smaller plants. They are less common as houseplants, but I have owned one. A Xanthosoma Lindenii, which is pictured below.

xanthosoma leaf

Do elephant ear plants flower?

Yes, elephant ear plants flower! And while they generally aren’t grown for their flowers, it’s always cool to see one flowering. I have had a few flower in my care. The blooms can have varying levels of fragrance, and they look kind of like a little corn on the cob with a smooth tip surrounded by a little coat. (Can you tell I’m a hobbyist, not a botanist?)

alocasia flower

How to divide an elephant ear plant

You can propagate an elephant ear plant by dividing it at the tuber level. This can be done on any healthy plant with more than one tuberous structure. To separate your plant, you’ll first need to take it out of its pot or dig it up out of the ground.

Then, using a knife, cut plants apart at the tuber level. Tubers look and cut like potatoes, so it shouldn’t be difficult. Make sure you take some of the roots with you! You can plant the separated plant in its own pot using fresh soil.

When my parents brought their Alocasia macrorrhizos indoors a few years ago, they broke off a smaller baby plant from it for me. It was the end of the season—the worst time to propagate a baby plant—so my goal is to just keep it going through the winter.

I was initially really upset when I saw one leaf yellowing and drooping—it had only three! Thankfully I was able to trim the bad leaf off, and the remaining two leaves seemed fine. Then a few days later I noticed a new leaf unfurling. BIG YAY! It made it to spring and lived happily in my backyard.

almost black colocasia
separating a colocasia baby
separating a colocasia baby
colocasia baby

Rooting a tuber with no roots

You can also take a cutting of a plant that is attached to a tuber but hasn’t yet grown any roots. While I’ve had mixed success with this, I did successfully grow roots on and transplant a baby in moss and perlite. This was a baby of the baby my parents gave me!

It initially had two very small leaves. One yellowed and died off in the rooting process. But soon after, it sprouted new growth. The roots were quite extensive by the end of winter, so I potted it up and passed it on.

elephant ear plant rooting in moss
elephant ear plant rooting in moss

Do elephant ear bulbs multiply?

Another way to propagate an elephant ear plant is through harvesting bulbs (tubers). This is pretty much the same process as dividing the plant. You’ll need to dig the plant up or remove it from its pot and inspect what you’d got going on in the soil.

The difference is that you may encounter bulbs that have not yet sprouted plants. You can harvest those and grow new, separate plants. Or you can save the bulbs for spring and plant somewhere else.

elephant ear tuber

Are elephant ear plants toxic?

Many elephant ear plants are poisonous if ingested in large quantities. The leaves and stem areas contain oxalic acid, which can lead to serious illness. Keep away from kids and pets since they require a much smaller dose to feel the effects—just chewing on the leaves can be bad.

Note, though, that cooking negates the poisonous aspects of some varieties—cooked parts of the Colocasia and Xanthosoma varieties have been a diet staple around the world for centuries. I still wouldn’t recommend eating it because I don’t personally know enough about cooking it properly.

green elephant ear leaf

Battling spider mites

Elephant ear plants—particularly alocasias, in my experience—are especially vulnerable to spider mites. Spider mites are tiny insects that feed on your plant’s foliage. They will kill the plant if left untreated.

They thrive in warm, dry conditions. So houseplants during the winter are like prime real estate for them! To help keep them at bay, boost the humidity in your space. Also isolate any new plants you bring into the home so you don’t accidentally bring in a new pest.

spider mite infestation on an alocasia plant
spider mite infestation on an alocasia plant

I mentioned the small transplant I got from my parents. After misting it with cool water all winter and monitoring for mites, I got lazy with misting. A week later, I noticed spider mites! One of the leaves was beginning to yellow. I immediately freaked out and took it downstairs and set it out on the deck.

It was cold, but it wasn’t freezing, and I knew cold and wetness would help kill off spider mites. I ended up cutting away the affected leaves and bringing the plant back inside overnight for a week or so until is warmed up enough to keep this guy outside.

That took care of the issue! And after I transplanted it to a bigger pot about a month later, it exploded with growth! The sun and humidity outdoors no doubt helped a ton, and there are no more signs of spider mites.

yellowing leaf on an elephant ear
elephant ear
large leaves on an elephant ear

Why do elephant ears turn yellow?

There are a ton of reasons why elephant ears may be turning yellow and dying. Outlining them all would be an article itself, so I will provide an overview of some of the things I’ve personally experienced as causes of yellowing leaves.

  • Overwatering: Overwatering can lead to root rot, which will slowly kill off the leaves. They might turn yellow first, eventually fading to brown and dying.
  • Underwatering: If you don’t give the plant enough water, it might try to conserve energy by killing off its oldest leaves. They will yellow and die off.
  • Pests: If pests are feeding on your plant, it could lead to yellow spotting in the leaves. Look for signs of pests and treat accordingly.
  • Low temperatures: Lower temperatures could send the plant into dormancy, which could mean the leaves will yellow and die off.
  • Normal lifecycle: And sometimes yellowing leaves are just part of the plant’s normal lifecycle. If it’s just the occasional old leaf yellowing and dying off, I wouldn’t worry.
Yellowing leaf
Yellowing leaf while I had the plant indoors for the winter
Yellowing leaf following shipping
Yellowing leaf following shipping

In conclusion…

Elephant ear plants are a great choice for anyone looking to add a bit of tropical flair to their home or garden. They come in several varieties, and all share the need for bright, indirect light; consistent moisture; and protection from extreme cold. 

While they can be a bit demanding, the payoff is in their dramatic foliage and the lush atmosphere they create. Remember to watch out for common issues like spider mites. Got any more tips? Drop a comment below. Happy planting!

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collage of plants that says how to care for elephant ear plants

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