Exotic Beauties

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I’m a longtime believer in the philosophy that a garden should excite the senses. I hate a boring garden.Before we can get close enough to a garden to have our sense of smell excited, it’s our sight and vision of what’s before us that’s the first stimulus. I consider this to be the drama of the garden.

And, furthering that point, as we try to get away from the commonplace plants, we look to exotics for this stimulation. These exotic plants can be either tender and tropical or hardy and able to withstand the worst that summer and winter can throw at them. But in a well cultured garden I think there’s a place for plants that might not normally be expected in our temperate climate.

In the past two decades, garden designers, plant breeders, and finally, the growers, have been bringing us plants that were once relegated to the warmer climates. Now they are often found at local garden centers and from online vendors.

The plant groups that I’ve been taken with recently are the colocasias, alocasias and the xanthomonas. And while the names may throw you for a loop, they are all members of the aroid family.

Not familiar with it? Oh yes you are. We have a native aroid that goes by the scientific name of symplocarpus foetidus. Still unfamiliar?

It’s skunk cabbage.

In that same family as skunk cabbage are plants that we once simply called “elephant ears.” The ones that I remember from years ago were caladiums that now come in various colors. If you look at their foliage, they do somewhat resemble an elephant’s ear.

Just 40 years ago, the caladiums were the only elephant ears that showed up in our gardens and in hardy garden literature. But the colocasias, alocasias and the xanthomonas, often referred to as tropical perennial herbs, are so much more dramatic than the caladiums. They have colors and color variations, textures and size that caladiums could only dream about.

The leaf ribbing and venation can be as extraordinary as their size. The foliage can be 3 and even 4 feet long and a couple of feet wide. They are certainly candidates for the drama queens of any summer garden in both the sun and the shade.

Alocasia leaves are held horizontally with the tips of the leaves being pointed. They tend to prefer part shade and a very well drained soil.

Colocasia leaves point downward and can be more rounded and bowling ball-shaped but there is also a great deal of variation. They can tolerate full sun and some will grow in very moist, almost wetland, conditions. 
Xanthomona leaves point downward and most have arrow-shaped foliage. Some have waxy upper surfaces and the foliage can also be quilted. The leaves also have a collecting vein that runs all around the leaf inside the margin.

The real differences between the three are in their flowers. However, none are grown in our garden for their flowers so that’s not really a factor.

The taro plant is probably familiar to many of you. It’s actually a colocasia and is a plant that has a long history to the natives of the Hawaiian islands, where it’s grown as a root vegetable and is made into a food called “poi.”

In the garden, however, these three plants can be the talk of the neighborhood. That is if you can grow them.

You’ll see a couple at local garden centers as potted plants. And you can find a couple of colocasia and alocasia tubers. But if you really want the exotic ones that will have everyone talking, you’ll have to grow them yourself.

The challenge is that these plants thrive in the heat and they need heat to grow. So if you want them in the garden, you need to start them indoors in very early spring then plant them out in late May or early June.

In July and August, they simply thrive out here. But before the first frost of fall, cut back the foliage and bring the tubers indoors for winter storage or yank the potted plants out of the ground and store the whole plant in a cool, dry spot for the winter.

Potted plants are available online from a number of nurseries and are usually shipped mid-spring but they still can’t be planted outdoors until June. The trick is to find a place that will sell dormant tubers (they are not bulbs) so you can get a jump on the season. If that doesn’t work, buy the potted plants this year and learn how to hold them over.

Find these plants at online retailers, such as White Flower Farm. Right now, five colocasias are offered but they are already sold out of two. Van Bourgondien’s Dutch Bulbs offers three of the most common colocasias. But if you really want the exotics, you have to go to a place like Plant Delights Nursery, Inc., which offers three alocasias and a huge selection of 20 colocasias.

Most of Plant Delights’ selections cost approximately $15 for potted varieties but the selection is pretty remarkable. Plants range from the diminutive Jennings Dwarf—that is only 18 inches tall with charcoal foliage and veins with a silver splotch—all the way up to Jack’s Giant, which measures in at 7 feet tall.

Of course, there’s also everything in between so that the talented gardener or designer can create a stunning garden of specimens or a garden of elephant ears like no one has ever seen in these parts. The site also offers a Royal Hawaiian series that’s been developed by breeder John Cho. This line has been specifically bred for its ornamental value.

RealFlora also has some interesting offerings but I’m not familiar with them. This site appears to be a network of Florida growers, who can offer some very interesting selections. Doing some research, there seems to be a variety of 14 alocasias, 19 colocasias and five xanthomonas.

All these offerings are potted, so shipment shouldn’t be asked for until the spring. Prices range from $15 to over $80, so you know there are a few collector’s items.

Keep in mind though that these are plants for the heat of the summer. If you want really stunning plants, they must be started indoors and planted out when it really gets warm. A greenhouse is ideal for starting them but so is a south-facing room or sunroom. They are probably best planted in their pots and note if the varieties you want to grow do best in sun, shade or both.

Get exotic. And keep growing.

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