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Plant Profiles

Sarian elephant ear



Out-of-control arrangement alert!  These crazy leaves are hitting the ceiling beam, not to mention dwarfing the little table.  Let me explain.  It was time to dig up three plants of 'Sarian' elephant ear, to overwinter them in pots in the greenhouse.  But there's no practical way to dig up anything with this size foliage: It will just get snapped or trampled in the process. 


Better just to cut it all off at a foot.  Then there would be just three foot-high plants to dig up and pot up.  Easy.  (They'll grow new leaves soon, anyway.  Plus, they don't have to look like anything until Spring.  When you're an elephant ear, six months is a lifetime.)


Why waste all of that huge foliage, though?  Admittedly, my low-ceilinged 18th Century farmhouse isn't quite the milieu.  Foliage this shamelessly dramatic really needs high ceilings, cantilevered stairs, and huge walls of plate glass: a zillionaire's villa in Acapulco, say.


Look at the size of these leaves! 




The reptilian leaf stems only add to the prehistoric impact. 




 And because 'Sarian' leaves are held pointing up, not down like many elephant ears, the stems are on full display.



Here's how to grow this oversized, almost too-dramatic elephant ear:

Latin Name

Alocasia 'Sarian'

Common Name

'Sarian' elephant ear


Araceae, the Calla family.

What kind of plant is it

Rhizomatous tropical perennial.


Zones 10 - 11


Clumping, with large triangular leaves at the tips of thick smooth stems.

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

In ideal climates—steaming and hot year-round—a colony to twelve feet tall and wide.  Much smaller (but still looking very happy) growing as an annual or a houseplant; even so, heights of five and six feet are very realistic.


The definition of tropical, with huge leaves on tall stems that are in exuberant (and sometimes, depending on the company, defiant) juxtaposition with all your other plants.  The prominent white veins increase (or, depending on your taste, exacerbate) the show.

Grown for

its foliage.  Huge dark green triangular leaves have wide and extremely vivid white veins.  The leaves point skyward from the tips of long thick reptilian-skinned stalks, making the plant automatically taller than varieties where the leaves point downward, and also more open and modernistically showy because the leaf stalks are always fully exposed. 


its vigor: 'Sarian' wants only rich soil that never lacks for water, and all possible heat.  Then it becomes a monster.  See "How to Handle It" below.

Flowering season

Almost year-round if conditions are amenable.  Although large and calla-lily-like, and at the tips of long thick stalks, the flowers are completely secondary compared to the foliage.  If your 'Sarian' never blooms, you'll never miss it; if it does bloom, the plant doesn't look better or more complete.


Provide conditions as close to those of Borneo as you can manage:  Steaming heat with soil that's moist and rich but not waterlogged.  Shade to part shade from Zone 7 to 11; more and more sun if used as a warm-weather annual farther north.

How to handle it

If you're gardening in the moist tropics, Alocasia 'Sarian' needs nothing other than being planted into rich soil and watered once.  Leave the top of the rhizome above the soil level, and the end with the roots at the bottom.  If you're growing it only as a warm-weather annual, it needs scarcely more, too: just regular watering. 


To carry it through year to year in climates that are colder, though, takes more thought.


As with all the elephant ears, the warm season's easy:  Buy plants as large as you can find and afford, but don't put them outside until the weather's truly settled into Summer.  The plants pick up speed as Summer itself does, and—all of a sudden—are massive by August, and thrillingly gigantic by September.  As long as you can provide enough moisture and root-room so the plant never dries out, provide all possible heat even if it means more and more sun.  (South of Philadelphia, though, Summer's already as hot as it needs to be, so afternoon shade, or dappled sun all day, should keep the plant safe from leaf scorching.) 


If you're gardening in the subtropics, you can experiment with leaving your 'Sarian' in the ground year-round; mulch it heavily so that, in the event of frost, only the leaves and stalks get hit.  If the base and roots don't get frosted, they'll soon put out more leaves. 


Farther north, though, 'Sarian' is a plant to bring into shelter before frost.  It will grow as a houseplant if it gets enough humidity and light.


Before frost, dig up in-ground plants; they'll have far fewer roots than you'd think, so don't need all that much of a root-ball.  Make it easier for you and the plant by cutting off all of its leaves at a foot high.  Don't be shy: Just do it—and bring in the leaves to make a killer "hotel-lobby" sized arrangement.  Pot the plant up, using only a pot that its now-greatly-reduced root ball needs.  Place in bright light in a cool but a frost-free window; the cooler the window, the slower the growth.  Keep it in or at least near a window; this isn't a plant to stick in the corner regardless if that's where it looks best with the furniture.


Don't water until the plant needs it; you'll know when because the soil will feel dry.  The goal is to keep the plant quiet and barely growing.  Then it's less susceptible to the usual terrors of indoor plants: bugs. 


Better to keep the plants fully dormant or nearly so, which means they'll be either cool enough or dry enough, or both, that there's little or no growth for the house-plant bugs to terrorize.


Only when the days lengthen in February and March should you feel like providing any encouragement of a weak drink of fertilizer, or more heat.  But remember, more heat means more growth—which probably means more bugs.  As long as the plant is, so to speak, humming softly to itself, it's fine to hold off on that encouragement.  Wait until you replant it outside when the weather's truly warm—late May?  Early June?  Don't be too eager—to help it break out into "O Solo Mio" by providing fabulous compost, generous watering, and—most important—the hot weather.


It can be easier still—and, frankly, more attractive: A barely-growing elephant ear's no beauty—to try to put your 'Sarian' into warm-and-dry dormancy.  After you've brought it indoors with the leaves cut off to a foot high, don't repot it; let it rest on some newspaper in heat and bright light, where it will dry out slowly.  The leaves will shrivel and the dirt will dry; remove each gently, but don't be a neatness-Nazi. 


Now you can put the fairly-dry (but not dessicated) tuber into a large pot or a crate, "planting" it not in soil but in loose peat moss that's got just the slightest moisture to it, say.  Or vermiculite.  Or mulch.  Or even dry leaves from the garden.  The goal of any of these "packing mediums" is to slow further evaporation.  Don't literally "pack" the tuber in them; just set it on a layer of the material, and then strew more atop it to bury it lightly.


And now the tricky part:  Where to store the "packed" 'Sarian'?  If the location is too hot or too dry, the bulb will probably dry out fatally.  If it's too humid or too chilly, the tuber will rot.  My dirt-floor basement would be completely too damp and chilly, but if your house has a concrete-floor basement it might be just the right cool-but-not-too-cool spot. 


If you can overwinter dahlia tubers successfully, there's hope.  Is there a spot that's dahlia-friendly but just a bit warmer?  Dahlias are merely subtropical, whereas elephant ears are tropical as tropical can be, and need a warmer dormancy. 


Check on your victim—I mean dormant 'Sarian'—every few weeks, especially the first couple of overwinterings.  Too dry?  Sprinkle just a bit of water onto the tuber, as well as onto the surrounding medium.  Starting to get moldy?  Lift the tuber out of the medium entirely and bring it back into warmth and full light so it can dry out for a few days.  Then repack into fresh medium and store it somewhere slightly warmer.


Ideally, your 'Sarian' will look perky and ready-to-go when you lift it from the medium in late Winter or Spring, pot it into fresh soil, and place it in your warmest and sunniest spot.  Don't water it at first: the soil itself will feel plenty moist to anything that's been snoozing for months in "medium."  Let it take the first step by showing a bit of growth, and then water just a bit in return.  Let it grow some more, then water more thoroughly.  You want to ramp-up together, watering and growing, growing and watering.  Don't get ahead of the game with the watering; it won't help a sleepy bulb wake up faster; it will just rot it. 


In general, don't try to bring elephant ears (or caladiums, either) into growth in Spring unless you've really got the warmth for it:  They'll just rot if it's not as cozy as they require.  (If you just can't wait until the weather's as warm as needed, setting the pots on a heating mat would definitely help.)  Remember that it's the cool temperatures at night that slow the young plants down, for which the warmer temperature in the sun of the day won't compensate.


After the night temperatures outside are securely above sixty, plant your 'Sarian' outside. 


OK:  Now that you've got a 'Sarian' that gets big and bodacious, how to use it in the garden where it won't look like just another side-show escapee?  The plant is inherently focal, so only use it where you want a focus to be created—or you have one already that now needs a plant that's up to the task of commanding center stage.  I always vote for growing 'Sarian' in large containers.  You're more likely to be able to locate them in an appropriately "important" spot, and you can move them in case you find that there's not enough sun, or too much shade.  'Sarian' is so strongly sculptural that, to me, the only accompaniment needed is something ferny and flowing at the base.  Ferns, literally, say.  Or asparagus fern.  You can have either in a separate container set right by the 'Sarian'; then there's no root competition and your 'Sarian' can get all the bigger.   


While 'Sarian' couldn't be easier as a warm-weather annual, overwintering it is a project full of subtleties.  It may take a couple of seasons to test out which options work best for you.


Alocasia and their cousins the Colocasia (all native to Asia, Australia, and islands of the southwest Pacific)—and, oh, what the heck, their other cousins, the Xanthosoma (all native to the tropical New World)—total well over a hundred species.  They mutate often, and hybridize with pleasure, so there are always new flavors to try. 


You can usually identify which is which just by the leaf orientation:  Alocasia leaves usually point up; Colocasia leaves usually point down.  Xanthosoma leaves, however, also usually point down; they're only different from those of Colocasia in that the notch between the upper pair of lobes usually extends right down to the leaf stem.  Colocasia leaves are a bit more "web-footed."  I'm glad I've cleared that up for you.


They all require heat and moisture, but only the Colocasias favor growing in actual mud or even shallow water.  Mature sizes range from that of caladiums (yet another cousin) to gigantic "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" plants, e.g., 'Borneo Giant', with individual leaves taller than most humans, and on stems that are themselves taller still.  Foliage can be variously variegated, so to speak, or solidly-colored in yellow or bronze or ebony; the leaves can point up or down, be wider or narrower, longer or shorter, or smooth-edged or wavy.  Leaf stems can be striped, stippled, banded, or one of several solid colors independent of any colors or patterns in the leaves themselves.  All in all, to quote Stephen Sondheim's description of the courtesan in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," elephant ears provide a "stadium of delights."


Most grow so fast that they can be used as annuals, but the largest sizes—and size is very much the point of most of them—are only possible when they're grown year-round in warm-and-wet tropical conditions.  Many can be overwintered dormant or near-dormant, and provided they can be started into growth by providing enough heat and moisture again, will perform almost as prodigiously.  See "How to Handle It" above for strategies.   


On-line and at retailers.


By division of the clump, dormant or in growth, in early Spring or in Summer. 

Native habitat

Alocasia 'Sarian' is a hybrid of two Alocasia that are both native to the Phillipines:  A. zebrina and A. micholitziana.

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