I’m not sure there is any plant dependent on foliage for beauty that can surpass the self-dramatization of caladium in the garden throughout the growing season. In a previous garden, I pairedCaladium having green-veined white leaves with dusty miller (Jacobaea maritima) and variegated monkey grass (Liriope muscari ’Variegata’) against a backdrop of variegated privet (Ligustrum sinense ‘Variegata’). I loved the green and white palette and the vertical design, and the caladiums always seemed to leap forth with a joyful nodding to greet me.
Caladiums are grown as ornamental plants in large “fancy-leaved” and “lance-leaved” or "strap leaf" forms. The more common of these is the “fancy-leaved” form with its heart-shaped white, pink, or red leaves, whose veins in contrasting colors add to the beauty of the leaves. Common names for Caladium are elephant ear, Heart of Jesus and Angel Wings. The epithet “elephant ear” is more likely associated with Alocasia or Colocasia, whose leaves are much larger and thus more emblematic of the name. The true elephant ears (Colocasia) have wintered over in my garden during mild winters, but not my caladiums. They are a tropical South American plant, zone ten (note details of caladium cultivation). In zone 7, the tubers should be lifted before frost, cleaned of soil, and stored in a cool location.
My favorite formal display of caladiums this year is in the bed leading to the Hughes Pavillion at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. There, one finds a thickly planted circle of a variety that is new to me: 'Frog in a Blender.' I bought tubers of this variety at the Dixon Garden Fair early this year and planted them in pots. When these beauties popped up and started unfurling, they didn't stop until they were more than three feet tall! Had Dale Skaggs' garden workers mislabeled Colocasia as Caladium? Not so. This new variety is not only as tall as some Colocasia, but produces many beautifully variegated leaves for astriking display. While I have trouble imagining real frogs in a blender, I can see that the name refers to the combination of lime-green splotches against a dark green background. That touch of red in the center of each leaf is hardly visible here and certainly not dramatic like the red veins in "Fantasy" at the bottom of the picture. I prefer to think of the red as the frog’s eye.
How does one add the “Wow! Factor” to shaded gardens? At the Memphis Botanic Garden, caladiums are an obvious choice to brighten shady nooks. Along the pathway to the herb garden, for example, a patch of white caladiums with green veins sparkles in the shady area near the dry creek bed, and just
over the bridge at the entrance to this garden, the smaller lance-leaved (or strap leaf) Caladium 'Desert Sunrise' seems to pop out of the dark shade beneath Colocasia 'Mojito' to welcome visitors. "Desert Sunrise' is doing well in the shade here, but the strap leaf variety can tolerate more sun than the fancy-leaved variety. Near the entrance to the garden, beside the rectangular fountain, Caladium 'White Wonder' thrives with Croton variegatum and other sun-loving plants.
Caladiums brighten porches all over Midtown and will continue to do so until temperatures drop. A fernery plant stand on my porch presents a mixture of ‘Frog in a Blender,’ ‘Fantasy,’ and ‘Candidum, Jr.’ all from the Dixon sale. Rectangular concrete pots with red and pink caladiums invite visitors to neighboring porches. Caladiums are also planted in some flowerbeds. Patience is key to successful inground planting. The gardener must wait until the ground warms; otherwise, the tubers may rot in the rains that come in early spring. Also, the tubers take three to four weeks to emerge after the ground warms to about 70 degrees. I learned both of these lessons the hard way.
Caladiums will bloom only if conditions are right. One of my plants did bloom this summer, although the bloom (which looked like a stunted Calla lily bloom) was less spectacular than the foliage and lasted less than a week. But who needs blossoms when the glorious foliage of caladiums lasts an entire season?