'Illustris' elephant's ear. Photo: Steve Bender

Are you one of demure people who always hides in the back and hopes not to be noticed? Then stop it. Right now. In order to get anywhere in life, you need to attract attention. You can start with your garden. Plant elephant's ear. There is nothing subtle or shy about it.

There are two groups of plants people call elephant's ear. The first, Alocasia sp., holds its huge spear-shaped leaves upright. For that reason, it has earned the shockingly obvious common name, "upright elephant's ear." It's not quite as cold-hardy (at best to USDA Zone 8A) and therefore not as widely grown as the other group, Colocasia sp., whose humongous, heart-shaped to spear-shaped leaves hang down. Most of these are winter-hardy to Zone 7A and they are the ones this post is about. For clarity, I'll call them hangy-down elephant's ear.

Most hangy-down elephant's ears are derived from an Asian species called Colocasia esculenta, also known as taro. It's one of the world's oldest cultivated plants and grown in many tropical countries for its edible root. Hawaiians call it "kalo" and grind up the root to make a starchy, goopy food called "poi" that's served with practically every meal.

emOh boy, that's poi! Photo: Bshams/em

Mmmmm.........doesn't that look good? I've tried poi and it reminds me of tasteless grits. You need to combine it with something that has an actual flavor. Maybe a slaw dog.

In the garden, taro looks like the old, familiar green elephant's ear whose huge roots you buy at big box stores in spring. But in recent years, plant breeders have introduced many exciting new forms that have gardeners tittering with poi......oh wait, I meant joy. Now we have purple leaves, nearly black leaves, spotted leaves, banded leaves, yellow leaves, red-stemmed leaves, puckered leaves, and leaves so shiny they look like the skin of an oiled-up body builder. Depending on the type, plants grow from 3 feet tall up to 7 feet. Feel free to drool over the following selections.

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em'Puckered Up.' Photo: PDSI/em
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How To Grow To grow hangy-down elephant's ears that will thrill, chill, and fulfill you, you have to give them lots of four things -- heat, sun, water, and nitrogen fertilizer. Grumpy finds it easier to supply all four when they're grown in containers instead of the ground, but that's up to you. Plant the tubers about 6-inches deep.

As mentioned before, don't expect these plants to survive winters where the ground freezes or temps drop below 10 degrees. Heavy mulching in late winter can provide an extra zone of hardiness, maybe to Zone 6. So how can you keep over a showstopper plant you've paid big bucks for? Grow it in a container you can take inside for winter to a cool basement or garage that doesn't freeze. You'll need to keep the soil slightly moist to preserve the roots. Then take it back outside the next spring when you feel a good sweat coming on. Serve up some poi and enjoy!