Caladium bulbs(Caladium bicolor) are colorful easy to grow tropical natives that will brighten shaded areas of the garden. The beautiful shield-shaped leaves of bright red, pink and gleaming white with green or red veins or splotches have made caladiums a shade garden favorite for over a century.
Caladiums are native to the Amazon basin of South America, mainly Brazil and are at home in shaded woodlands and creek banks. Almost all caladiums sold in the United States are grown in Lake Placid, FL which calls itself “The Caladium Capital Of The World.” Lake Placid growers produce a reported 97% of all ornamental caladium bulbs grown in the whole world, and a large caladium festival is held there each August.
Caladiums actually grow from tubers rather than true bulbs. Since they are tropical, they are only hardy to USDA Zone10 in North America, so they are either lifted and stored for the winter or grown as annuals.
Fancy-leafed caladiums are the most common type and are usually 12-24 inches tall and wide and can have leaves 6-12 inches long. Newer, dwarf varieties of caladiums called strap leafed and lance leafed produce many more leaves than fancy leafed caladiums and usually stayed under 1 foot in height. The popular strap leafed caladium pictured above is called “Florida Sweetheart.” The caladium pictured at the end of this article is a lance leafed type.
How To Grow Caladium Bulbs
Caladium bulbs can be planted after the soil temperature reaches 70 degrees. If you live in a colder area, you can start them indoors about 1 month before moving them into the garden. Planting caladium bulbs in cold soil will cause the tubers to rot.
Caladiums prefer a moist, slightly acidic soil with plenty of organic matter making them perfect for planting under high branched trees. They do not like soil that has had lime added so make sure to plant these in a different area from where you plant your alkaline loving plants.
Caladiums like to be kept moist but not wet, and they do not tolerate drought or desert climates.
Once your caladium bulbs are growing, they need to be fertilized once a month with a balanced fertilizer. Choose a formula where all three numbers are the same such as 5-5-5.
Caladiums are heavy feeders of potassium and trace minerals which helps keep their colors bright. Organic fertilizers are best since chemical plant foods have been known to cause discoloration of the leaves. Any liquid fertilizer should be kept off the leaves. Because of these issues, caladiums are not candidates for foliar feedings.
As a shade loving plant caladiums won’t do well in direct sun. They will tolerate more sun in cooler areas but any more than two hours of direct sun will scorch and discolor the leaves. The white leafed types will not tolerate direct sun at all, especially in Southern gardens.
Plant caladiums with ferns, hostas, Callas begonias, and impatient for a riot of color in your shaded flower beds.
Caladiums grow well in containers indoors or out, and one advantage to growing them in pots is that you can bring them inside for the winter to enjoy as houseplants. Potted caladiums can be moved back to the garden as soon as nights are consistently above 60 degrees.
Are Elephant Ears The Same As Caladiums?
Caladiums are sometimes called “elephant ears,” but true elephant ears are actually Colocasia, Alocasia, or Xanthosoma, all close Asian relatives of the caladium. Colocasia tubers are also known as taro and are an important source of food in Asia. The roots taste similar to potatoes and are prepared by boiling. Taro is the main ingredient in the Polynesian staple poi. Alocasia is called dasheen in the Carribean and arrowroot in East Africa and is also eaten as a starchy vegetable.
Taro roots can weigh up to 10 pounds. Ornamental elephant ear bulbs usually weigh around two pounds.
Warning! Elephant ear and caladium bulbs contain large amounts of calcium oxalate and are poisonous if eaten raw. Boiling the roots carefully removes the poisons, but this should only be done by someone with experience. In other words, if you don’t know how to cook them properly, you shouldn’t eat elephant ear tubers. There is no room for experimentation here.
Elephant ear bulbs are grown pretty much the same way as caladiums, but elephant ears like more moisture and will even grow in up to 1 foot of water making them good choices to plant in a shallow pond or bog garden. Elephant ear plants will also take a little more direct sun than caladiums but more than 2-3 hours of sun will scorch the leaves.
How To Store Caladiums Bulbs Over The Winter
Many caladium growers say it isn’t worth it to save bulbs from year to year because garden grown tubers don’t usually reach large enough sizes to produce full plants with many growing points like nursery grown caladiums.
Still, if you are growing a rarer caladium that you’re not sure can be replaced next year the process for saving tubers is really easy. The plants will stop producing new leaves after the first few cool nights, and this will usually be your indicator that the time is right to lift the tubers. Don’t wait until after the first frost or your caladium bulbs will be killed.
It’s best to let the leaves of your freshly dug caladiums die back naturally off the ground in a dry area. If frost or rain threatens you can go ahead and cut them back and bring them indoors to dry before storing. Store caladium bulbs in a mesh bag with sphagnum moss in an area that doesn’t fall below 60 degrees.
Indoors, potted caladiums will sometimes begin to lose their leaves in the lower light and temperatures of the late autumn. If this happens let them go into dormancy by slowly withdrawing water until the leaves totally die back. You can break dormancy in the early spring by slowly reintroducing water and moving them closer to a warm window. When your caladium bulbs begin to sprout fertilize them and begin a regular watering schedule.