Caladium bulbs (Caladium bicolor) are colorful easy to grow tropical natives that will brighten shaded areas of the garden. The beautiful shield shaped leaves of bright red, pink, and gleaming white with green or red veins or splotches have made caladiums a shade garden favorite for over a century.

red caladiums

Caladiums are native to the Amazon basin of South America, mainly Brazil and are at home in shaded woodlands and creek banks. Almost all caladiums sold in the United States are grown in Lake Placid, FL which calls itself “The Caladium Capital of the World.”

Lake Placid growers produce a reported 97% of all ornamental caladium bulbs grown in the whole world, and a large caladium festival is held there each August.

Caladiums actually grow from tubers rather than true bulbs. Since they are tropical, they are only hardy to USDA Zone 10 in North America so they are either lifted and stored for the winter, or grown as annuals.

Fancy leafed caladiums are the most common type, and are usually 12-24 inches tall and wide, and can have leaves 6-12 inches long. Fairly newer, dwarf varieties of caladiums called strap leafed and lance leafed produce many more leaves than fancy leafed caladiums, and usually stay under 1 foot in height.

strap caladiums

How to Grow Caladium Bulbs

Caladium bulbs can be planted after the soil temperature reaches 70 degrees. If you live in a colder area, you can start them indoors about 1 month before moving them into the garden. Planting caladium bulbs in cold soil will cause the tubers to rot.

Caladiums prefer a moist, slightly acidic soil with plenty of organic matter making them perfect to plant under high branched trees. They do not like soil that has had lime added, so make sure to plant these in a different area from where you plant your alkaline loving plants. Caladiums like to be kept moist but not wet, and they do not tolerate drought or desert climates.

Once your caladium bulbs are growing, they need to be fertilized once a month with a balanced fertilizer. Choose a formula where all three numbers are the same such as 5-5-5.

Caladiums are heavy feeders of potassium and trace minerals, which helps keep their colors bright. Organic fertilizers are best since chemical plant foods have been known to cause discoloration of the leaves.

Any liquid fertilizer should be kept off the leaves. Because of these issues caladiums are not candidates for foliar feedings.

As a shade loving plant caladiums won’t do well in direct sun. They will tolerate more sun in cooler areas, but any more than two hours of direct sun will scorch and discolor the leaves. The white leafed types will not tolerate direct sun at all, especially in Southern gardens.

Plant caladiums with ferns, hostas, callas begonias, and impatiens for a riot of color in your shaded flower beds. Caladiums grow well in containers indoors or out, and one advantage to growing them in pots is that you can bring them inside for the winter to enjoy as houseplants.

Potted caladiums can be moved back to the garden as soon as nights are consistently above 60 degrees. For more information on growing Caladium bulbs indoors see the bottom section: Grow a Vibrant Caladium as an Indoor Houseplant.

Are Elephant Ears The Same As Caladiums?

elephant ears caladiums

Caladiums are sometimes called “elephant ears” but true elephant ears are actually Colocasia, Alocasia, or Xanthosoma—all close Asian relatives of the caladium. Colocasia tubers are also known as taro and are an important source of food in Asia.

The roots taste similar to potatoes and are prepared by boiling. Taro is the main ingredient in the Polynesian staple poi. Alocasia is called dasheen in the Caribbean and arrowroot in East Africa and is also eaten as a starchy vegetable.

Taro roots can weigh up to 10 pounds. Ornamental elephant ear bulbs usually weigh around two pounds. Warning! Elephant ear and caladium bulbs contain large amounts of calcium oxalate and are poisonous if eaten raw.

Boiling the roots carefully removes the poisons, but this should only be done by someone with experience. In other words, if you don’t know how to cook them properly, you shouldn’t eat elephant ear tubers. There is no room for experimentation here.

Elephant ear bulbs are grown pretty much the same way as caladiums, but elephant ears like more moisture and will even grow in up to 1 foot of water, making them good choices to plant in a shallow pond or bog garden.

Elephant ear plants will also take a little more direct sun than caladiums, but more than 2-3 hours of sun will scorch the leaves.

How to Store Caladiums Bulbs Over the Winter

Many caladium growers say it isn’t worth it to save bulbs from year to year, because garden grown tubers don’t usually reach large enough sizes, to produce full plants with many growing points like nursery grown caladiums.

Still, if you are growing a rarer caladium that you’re not sure can be replaced next year the process for saving tubers is really easy. The plants will stop producing new leaves after the first few cool nights, and this will usually be your indicator that the time is right to lift the tubers.

Don’t wait until after the first frost or your caladium bulbs will be killed. It’s best to let the leaves of your freshly dug caladiums die back naturally off the ground in a dry area.

If frost or rain threatens, you can go ahead and cut them back and bring them indoors to dry before storing. You’ll want to store caladium bulbs in a mesh bag with sphagnum moss in an area that doesn’t fall below 60 degrees.

Indoors, potted caladiums will sometimes begin to lose their leaves in the lower light and temperatures of the late autumn. If this happens, let them go into dormancy by slowly withdrawing water until the leaves totally die back.

You can break dormancy in the early spring by slowly reintroducing water and moving them closer to a warm window. When your caladium bulbs begin to sprout, fertilize them and begin a regular watering schedule.

Grow a Vibrant Caladium as an Indoor Houseplant

caladiums as a houseplant

In general, caladiums are grown outdoors in order to provide color as well as texture to the landscape. However, because caladiums are only hardy to zone 10, their popularity as an indoor houseplant has increased steadily over the years.

Planting them in a container is quick and easy. All you need is a pot, good potting soil and caladium bulbs. The required pot size depends on bulb size and how many will be planted in the pot.

Bulbs of various cultivars will differ in size. Bear in mind that clumps of stems will grow from each bulb. A full, but not crowded, plant is desired. A dense, crowded pot of foliage will lack air circulation and be prone to disease.

Leave at least 2 inches of space surrounding each bulb. Typically, the bulbs should be covered with at least 1 to 1 1/2 inches of soil, and the pot should also have sufficient drainage holes.

Technically, caladiums do not grow from bulbs. They grow from tubers or rhizomes. This becomes obvious with its shape, and although the accompanying growing instructions may say to plant with the pointed side up, finding the “pointed” side may require a bit of imagination.

Upon examination, one side will be noticeably flatter, which is the bottom. With any luck, they will already be trying to sprout in the package, which makes it easier to locate the top. If not, look for raised nubs where the sprout is attempting to break through the tuber or small roots growing downward.

Since caladiums grow multiple stems in bunches from a single tuber, expect to find several sprouts and/or bumps from pre-emerging sprouts.

To plant the tubers, fill the pot ½ to ¾ full of rich, well-draining potting soil. Press firmly but do not over-compress, which could stanch drainage, resulting in an imbalance of moisture and oxygen.

Soil that stays too moist or compact will cause the bulbs to rot. Arrange the tubers, right side up on the soil. Fill the pot with soil, and firmly press in place. Water uniformly and thoroughly until the water drains out of the bottom of the pot.

The pot may be placed in a warm, sunny location or in artificial light. Once the foliage emerges, avoid hot summer sun as the leaves can become scorched.

Caladiums prefer lots of filtered sun to maintain their beautiful coloration. In the weaker winter sun, the leaf color may fade. Supplement with artificial light if possible to promote year-around vibrancy.

Fertilize every two weeks during the active growing season with a liquid houseplant fertilizer. Caladiums are natives of the tropics, so they need high humidity to sustain healthy leaves and bright colors. However, their leaves are prone to spotting from direct contact with water.

Rather than misting to increase humidity, place the pot on a tray of pebbles and water, or set in a steamy bathroom several times per week. Grown indoors as a houseplant, a caladium will attempt to follow its natural cycle, and it should be allowed to do so for the sake of longevity.

When caladiums begin to die down between September and November, reduce watering until the leaves completely wither and dry. Remove the tubers from the pot, remove excess dirt, and store in dry to semi-damp peat or vermiculite at 55 to 60 degrees F.

Storing in an airtight container can prevent too much moisture loss during storage, but be careful not to trap too much moisture, which can encourage growth of mold and fungal diseases in the tubers.

In March/April, repot the tubers in fresh soil for another season of color explosion to break the winter blahs! Caladiums will reward you for your care and effort with their color bursts for many years. You can also expand your collection through division.

Every few years, when the tubers have grown larger, simply cut it in half with a sharp, sterilized knife before repotting. Be sure each half has at least one sprout.

Plant your extra caladiums as more houseplants, as a potted gift plant for family and friends, or try them in your outdoor landscape. Be aware that they will not survive through the winter in colder climates less than zone 10.

However, they can be dug up and stored indoors for the winter for spring planting year after year. Again, a word of caution: Caladiums are poisonous. Keep out of the reach of pets and children.

Indoors or outdoors, caladiums are the perfect solution to “too much green,” and add excitement to the arrival of spring and summer.