Elephants in the garden

For the past month, I’ve said to myself, “This is the week I’ll have to dig up the tropicals and put them in winter storage.” But an unusually warm autumn here in central Illinois has allowed these tender plants to continue to flourish in the garden. We’ve avoided even the lightest frost so far this month, but the front that has spawned heavy rain and wind across the Midwest today promises to put an end to that streak on Thursday night, when temperatures are expected to plummet into the upper 20s.

Among the tropicals that will likely be decimated, shriveled masses when I wake up Friday morning are the  Colocasia that have beautifully decorated the backyard garden this summer and early autumn.

It’s obvious where Colocasia received their common name of elephant ears. If their shape and size wasn’t enough, they also mimic the swaying movement of an elephant’s head when the wind blows. The specimen pictured above (an unknown variety purchased bareroot at a department store this past spring) was the largest of the Colocasia I grew this year. Planted in a large container beneath a Red Maple (Acer rubrum), the leaves of this plant grew nearly four feet from top to bottom.

A smaller, greenish-black cultivar — ‘Illustris’ — filled a container on the other side of the maple. Together, these two served as beautiful specimens outside my living room window.

The elephant ears were at their best after summer rain showers. Their thick leaves, whose texture lies somewhere on a continuum between brushed leather and velvet, created the perfect surface tension to hold large water droplets long after storms had passed.

When I would return home from work in the evenings, the filtered sunlight from the west would illuminate the Colocasia leaves from behind, creating a ethereal glow in the shade garden. Although these plants were beautiful specimens throughout the day, in early evening they became the true accents of the garden.

This is my first year growing Colocasia, but they’ve earned a spot in my future gardens for years to come. I don’t like to think that I only have a couple more days to enjoy them, but I know next spring I will feel a new excitement. When I pot up the dormant tubers and wait for the bright green growing point break through the soil, I know it won’t be long before the elephants return to my garden.