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Caladiums

Caladium is often grown as a summer annual for the colorful foliage.
Caladium is often grown as a summer annual for the colorful foliage.

Caladiums are tropical perennials with colorful, heart-shaped leaves native to tropical forests in South and Central America that have pronounced wet and dry seasons. Caladium bicolor, a Brazilian species, is the most common of several species in this genus in the arum family (Araceae) that are used as ornamentals. There are thousands of named cultivars of this species (sometimes listed as C. x hortulanum), but other species and hybrids are sometimes available. Although they are only hardy to zone 9 or 10, they are easily grown as summer “bulbs” or as houseplants.

Caladiums are easily grown in containers.
Caladiums are easily grown in containers.

Other common names besides “caladium” include angels wings and elephant ears (but don’t confuse them with other plants, such as Alocasia, Colocasia and Xanthosoma, that also go by the common name elephant ears).

Leaves have long petioles arising directly from the bulb
Leaves have long petioles arising directly from the bulb

This is an “old-fashioned” plant, having been in cultivation in Europe since the late 1700’s, used for its dramatic foliage. The leaves generally have prominently colored midribs, contrasting margins, and patterns including mottled, veined and striped, in various combinations and shades of green, white, pink, rose and/or red. There are no stems; the leaves are borne on long petioles which arise directly from the underground tuber.

There are many cultivars of caladium available.
There are many cultivars of caladium available.

The two main types of caladiums are the fancy- leaved types, which have large, heart-shaped or semi-heart-shaped leaves on long petioles (12 to 30 inches tall), while the strap- or lance-leaved types, with their shorter and narrower, ruffle-edged leaves on short petioles, are more compact (usually less than 12 inches tall). The lance-leaved types (derived from C.picturantum) have more leaves per tuber than fancy-leaved types.

A caladium inflorescence emerging (L), flowering (C) and declining (R).
A caladium inflorescence emerging (L), flowering (C) and declining (R).

Although they are grown as foliage plants, caladiums may bloom, producing a single (rarely 2-3) typical arum-type flower with a green or pinkish spathe surrounding a short white spadix. Fruits are white berries with several to many seeds. Most people remove the inflorescence since it takes away energy from the plant that otherwise would be used to produce more leaves or a bigger tuber.
Use caladiums to add color and texture in shade gardens and in containers for decks and patios.

Combine caladiums with other shade-loving annuals in containers.
Combine caladiums with other shade-loving annuals in containers.
Choose companion plants that will complement the colors of the caladium yet have a textural contrast.
Choose companion plants that will complement the colors of the caladium yet have a textural contrast.

Grow them in naturalistic clusters of a single cultivar for greater impact, or mix and match for a multi-colored effect in smaller areas. Try them in combination with ferns, astilbe, and shade-tolerant iris or intersperse them with other shade loving plants to provide fountains of color. Pair them with impatiens or fuchsias that have flowers in similar or contrasting colors.

A pot of Fantasy caladium creates a dramatic statement in front of Rosy Lights azalea.
A pot of ‘Fantasy’ caladium creates a dramatic statement in front of ‘Rosy Lights’ azalea.
Intersperse caladiums in shade plantings to provide color.
Intersperse caladiums in shade plantings to provide color.

Select complementary coleus or begonia cultivars for a season-long foliage display of color and texture. Try a single, large plant in a raised pot or urn as a dramatic specimen plant and focal point in a flower bed. For a very tropical look, combine caladium with green or black elephant ears. The more compact lance-leaved types are great for window boxes or smaller containers. The cut leaves can last several days in fresh flower arrangements.

Caladiums grow from a tuberous corm, commonly called a bulb.
Caladiums grow from a tuberous corm, commonly called a bulb.

Caladiums grow from a tuberous corm. Tubers are available in different sizes based on diameter. The larger the tuber, the more leaf buds, so bigger tubers will produce a larger foliage display. Each tuber has a large, central bud surrounded by several small buds (eyes). The central bud will produce the largest leaves but also suppresses the smaller buds from growing. You can encourage the small buds to grow and produce more slightly smaller leaves by removing the large, central bud by gouging it out with the tip of a sharp knife. Just be careful not to injure any of the surrounding small buds.

A caladium started indoors.
A caladium started indoors.

In the Midwest, start caladium tubers indoors in spring 4-6 weeks before the average last frost or purchase potted plants. Place the knobby side with the eyes up (both roots and shoots emerge from the top of the tuber) and barely cover with soil. Keep the container in a warm room (70ºF or warmer) with bright light. Move the growing plants outdoors – either keep in the containers above ground or sunk into the ground, or transplant into the ground so the tuber is 1½”- 2″ deep – after the last frost. They prefer a moist, rich, light, well-drained soil, so it is best to amend most soils with plenty of compost or other organic material. In areas with heavy soils it is often better to keep them in containers than to plant them in the ground.

Caladiuims prefer a moist, rich, light, well-drained soil.
Caladiuims prefer a moist, rich, light, well-drained soil.

Tubers and plants will be damaged by low temperatures, and the plants will not grow much until temperatures are warm, so don’t rush to move them out right away. They do best when soil temperatures are at least 70ºF, and putting them in cold soil will just encourage the tubers to rot. High soil temperatures will affect leaf color, so the plants should be mulched in warm climates to maintain soil temperature below 85ºF.

Caladium Thai Beauty.
Caladium ‘Thai Beauty.’

Traditional cultivars do best in partial shade. Although they will grow in full shade, vigor and color is not as good. There are many newer, sun-resistant varieties that can be grown in part to full sun, especially in cooler, northern areas. Provide adequate moisture during the growing season so the soil remains evenly moist but not wet.

Keep the soil evenly moist and provide plenty of fertilizer during the growing season.
Keep the soil evenly moist and provide plenty of fertilizer during the growing season.

Caladiums are heavy feeders so need regular fertilization during the growing season, especially container-grown plants. Use a low-nitrogen or balanced formulation, as too much nitrogen can affect leaf color.

Caladiums thrive in hot and humid conditions.
Caladiums thrive in hot and humid conditions.

Caladiums thrive in the hot and humid conditions of summer but will start to droop and lose leaves as temperatures cool. If the tubers are to be kept over the winter in temperate areas, they must be brought in before the first frost (or before soil temperatures drop below 55ºF). Lift any tubers in the ground, remove most of the soil, and allow to dry for a week in a warm, shady spot before cutting off the leaves and storing in dry sphagnum moss or a mesh bag under mild conditions (55-60ºF) for up to five months. Tubers in containers can be brought inside and left undisturbed in the pots for the winter. Allow the growing medium to dry out as the leaves die back. The containers can be kept in bright or dark conditions but the temperature should never be below 55ºF. Begin watering again when new growth appears in the spring.

A caladium grown as a houseplant.
A caladium grown as a houseplant.

As a houseplant, provide a warm location with bright but indirect light, and lots of humidity. Even indoors, caladiums will enter dormancy after a few months in leaf. When their leaves start to die back, stop watering. Allow the plant to rest and resume watering once new growth starts.
Caladiums have few pest problems, especially in northern areas. Tuber rot – both in storage or once planted – usually occurs under cool conditions and can generally be avoided by proper storage and planting procedures. Leaf burn or scorch typically occurs on thin-leaved cultivars from too much sun, not enough water, or fertilizer sitting on the leaves. Propagate caladiums by dividing the tubers in spring before potting them up. Cut the tuber into pieces that contain at least one eye or knob; allow the cut pieces to dry for a few days to callous over before planting. All parts of the plant are poisonous if enough is ingested and handling the plants can irritate the skin of sensitive individuals.
Cultivars
There are thousands of caladium cultivars to choose from; these are some of the more popular cultivars.

CultivarTypeLeaf colorLeaf sizeHeight (inches)Sun toleranceWeeks in leaf
AaronFancy-leavedCreamy white center with white vein and dark green marginsM-L12-18some20
CandidumFancy-leavedWhite with green veinsM-L12-24yes21
Candidum Jr.Strap-leavedWhite with green veinsS16-12some21
Carolyn WhortonFancy-leavedPink with red veins and green marginL-XL18-30some23
Fannie MunsonFancy-leavedMainly pink with rose-colored veins traced with light greenL-XL18-30some19
Florida SweetheartStrap-leavedPinkish-red center with green edgeS6-12some 
Freida HempleFancy-leavedDark red centers with wide green marginsM-L12-24yes18
GingerlandStrap-leavedCreamy white with red speckles and green marginsS-M8-14yes 
June BrideFancy-leavedPastel green with lighter veinsM-L12-24some19
Miss MuffettStrap-leavedLime green to chartreuse speckled with maroon or deep red and often red veinsS10-14no 
Pink BeautyFancy-leavedPink with red veins and pink-speckled green marginsM-L12-24yes20
Pink GemStrap-leavedSalmon pink center grading to greenS6-12some24
Pink SymphonyStrap-leavedPink with green veinsS15some23
Postman JoynerStrap-leavedRed with wide, medium green marginM-L12-24yes 
Red FlashFancy-leavedDark red with pink spots and wide dark green marginsL-XL18-30yes18
Red FrillStrap-leavedRed shading to green at tips, very frilledS6-12no21
RosebudFancy-leavedPink center, surrounded by white and edged with greenM-L12-24yes18
White Christmas
 
Fancy-leavedBright white with dark green veins and marginsM-L12-24no19
White QueenFancy-leavedPure white leaves with thin red and green veinsM-L12-24yes22
White WingStrap-leavedWhite with curled edges stippled with greenS18some22

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison

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