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There are certain plants of such opulence that mere words will never do them justice. One of these plants is Caladium. The leaves are shaped like elephant ears, roughly speaking, and are adorned with spectacular markings in symmetrical patterns of red, white, and pink, often accompanied by colored splotches or random dots splashed on for good measure.
The etymological origin of Caladium is “kaladi,” a Malay word for the true yam, a bulb-like corm of the taro plant which is a staple in the diet of millions living in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific; it has black skin and white flesh with a texture chewier than that of a potato. (On Thanksgiving, what we call a yam is just a large sweet potato with orange flesh; it has no botanical kinship with the true yam.)
Caladium (Caladium bicolor) is a close relative of the taro plant (Colocasia esculentum). However, there is a significant difference between them. While taro yams are poisonous when raw, they lose their toxicity when cooked. On the other hand, Caladium’s tuber, commonly referred to as a bulb, from which its famous leaves grow, is poisonous regardless of how it is treated and should never be eaten.
I was reminded of Caladiums upon receiving an email from John Klima, who grows them to perfection in Orange. “Planting time is after the middle of April,” he wrote. “Night temperatures should be above 65 degrees to get them growing. If you plant them early they will just sit there and run the risk of rotting in wet soil.
“I order from companies all based in Florida: Florida Boys, Caladiums for Less, Caladiums Direct, and Classic Caladiums to mention a few. In my experience, it’s good to order early starting around the first of the year. Many varieties sell out fast. They start to ship out to the SoCal area around April 1st. I have learned to order #1 size and larger (i.e. Jumbo, Mammoth) as they make for a faster and larger display.
“Last year, my plants came into full growth around June 1 and lasted until the Santa Ana winds kicked up in mid-October. I have been amazed at how prolific and beautiful these plants are. I have been an avid gardener all my life, but have not seen them grown to much of an extent in our area. Can’t figure it out. An interesting side note is that I gave my sister-in-law some and, growing in pots, they are loving her shaded patio in Tucson.
“As for location, they require shade or filtered sun. They love the heat but can’t take full sun. I grow them in containers on a patio on the south side of my house. There is a 2-inch by 2-inch lattice overhead which is covered with shade cloth.
“I grow in 14-inch pots and larger, drilling extra holes in the bottom to assure good drainage. I get my potting mix from a neighbor with a succulent business. It is high in perlite for good drainage. Surprising to me, Caladiums don’t need copious amounts of water. I water once a week and feed with a water-soluble fertilizer (Miracle-Gro) once a month.
“I plant five bulbs in each 14-inch pot. It’s best to plant new bulbs each year. I have tried to replant them but they lose vigor the second year.”
Although the Caladium season is about half over, you could still plant them now for a couple of months, at least, of flamboyant growth. Checking at caladiumsdirect.com, I saw that plenty of distinctive varieties are still available and, if you order 25 bulbs or more, the price is less than a dollar per bulb.
Ninety-five percent of the caladium bulbs produced in the United States and 90% of the caladium bulbs produced in the world come from Lake Placid, Florida. The mucky soil in the envrions of this small town, together with its tropical climate, are ideal for the growth of Caladiums, which are native to forested river banks in Central and South America.
In Southern California, although Caladiums are strictly for growth in pots on shaded patios or balconies, their edible taro cousins can grow in shady to full sun exposures. The more sun that taros get, the more water they require. They are also cold-sensitive, dying back to the ground each winter. A number of years ago, I saw a large taro planting thriving in full sun at the Sepulveda Gardens – where anyone can rent a plot of ground for a nominal yearly fee – near the corner of Hayvenhurst Avenue and Magnolia Boulevard in Encino. The gentleman tending the plants was from Tonga, a nation comprised of numerous South Pacific islands.
Typically, the habitat of large-leafed plants is a shady one. The deeper the shade, the bigger the leaf. Scarcity of light means that leaf surface area will need to be at a maximum in order to absorb the small amount of light that filters through and is available to promote photosynthesis.
When it comes to elephant ear plants, there are two related groups: Colocasias and Alocasias. The leaves of the former droop and are heart-shaped, whereas the leaves of the latter are upwards oriented and arrowhead-shaped. Colocasias have corms and leaves that are generally edible when cooked, while Alocasias are rarely edible. The ornamental varieties of both groups grow to a height of six feet with leaves that may exceed three feet in length. Colocasia esculenta var. Black Magic has deep purple leaves verging on black. Alocasia macrorrhiza has enormous leaves that point to the sky. To meet their water needs without continual irrigation, plant them on the edge of a water pond or in a location without direct sun exposure. African mask (Alocasia x amazonica), which is actually native to the Philippines, is a popular houseplant owing to its elongated sea green to blackish leaves with white venation. While requiring bright ambient light, it will burn in direct sun.
If you have had success growing a plant with elephant ear foliage, you are invited to write me about your experience.
California native of the week: California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica or Epilobium canum) is distinctive among local natives, bursting into fiery bloom in just as the weather turns scorching hot. It then insists on continuing to flower deep into the fall. An excellent filler of empty spots, it works its way prolifically, yet non-invasively, through the garden.
California fuchsia, also known as hummingbird trumpet for its attractiveness to the eponymous flutterer, is an opportunistic species and may be seen popping up on canyon hillsides – for example, along Coldwater Canyon and Laurel Canyon Boulevards south of Mulholland Drive. It spreads by both seeds and rhizomes. Foliage is greenish to bluish gray and flowers are orange to red in color. In recent years, densely flowering, compact and brilliantly vivid cultivars have been selected and are available at native plant nurseries.
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What to know about the fiery blooms of this week’s hummingbird-friendly California native
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