How one eye-popping plant kept Grumpy from throwing in the trowel.

Steve Bender

This was the August of my discontent. Stingy rain coupled with blast furnace heat turned my lush garden beds into reasonable facsimiles of bread slices just removed from the toaster. I experienced several fits of irrational rage, dashing through the yard and screaming at the cloudless sky, "Okay, just kill it! KILL IT ALL!" One plant, however, saved me from the padded room – ‘Illustris' elephant's ear.

Most people recognize the common elephant's ear (Colocasia esculenta) by its huge, green, broadly arrowhead-shaped leaves held aloft by sturdy stems. New selections feature leaves that may be purple, nearly black, chartreuse, or cream. Some flaunt prominent veins, leaf margins, or spots. Other leaf surfaces are deeply puckered or as shiny as the finish on a new car. Some plants grow a foot tall. Some grow six feet.

I was looking for a dominant accent plant for a concrete pot near my front steps. This spring, I visited a local garden center (Collier's, for those of you who live in Birmingham) and picked out a one-gallon pot of ‘Illustris' for about eight bucks. ‘lllustris' sports charcoal-purple leaves up to 14 inches long with bright green veins and edges. I paired it with yellow creeping Jenny to have something flowing over the edges of the pot and also because purple and yellow look great together.

Growing Tips

I've found growing plants in containers to be much easier than growing them in the ground, especially during a hot, dry summer. Instead of spending an hour or two watering the yard in the broiling sun, I can soak my pots in about five minutes. This is especially important for elephant's ear, because it demands moist soil – it will even grow with its roots underwater. I planted it using fresh, bagged potting soil and slow-release, organic fertilizer. It took off and never looked back. It's increased from one tuber to at least four and now stands around three feet tall and wide. Mine gets half-sun/half-shade. Too much hot sun can burn leaves in the Deep South. Too little sun results in dull foliage.

WATCH: Your Summer Growing Checklist

One question I'm pondering is what to do with it when cold weather finally arrives. Some sources say ‘Illustris' is winter-hardy to USDA Zone 7. Maybe, but in a container, I'll bet on Zone 8A, which happens to be where I live. I'll take a chance, leave the pot where it is this winter, and see what happens in spring. Of course, I could do one of three things folks living in colder zones do. One, leave it outside to die and buy a new one next year. Two, haul it into a heated sunroom and enjoy it there over the winter. Or three, remove the foliage after it withers and dig up and store the tubers for winter. If you choose the latter, wash the soil off after digging them, dry them, wrap them in newspaper, and store them in a cool, dark room.

Thanks to ‘Illustris', my garden wasn't a total loss this year. Maybe next year, I'll enjoy total victory.

Yeah, right.

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