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By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

When choosing plants to give my shady deck that exotic, tropical look, I turn to caladiums. They’ve never let me down. Grown for their brilliant leaves in patterns of pink, red, green, white, and silver, caladiums provide summer-long color right up to frost. Other than water and fertilizer, they need very little care.

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There are hundreds of caladium cultivars, which can be divided into two leaf shapes. One is heart-shaped and the other is straplike. Heart-shaped varieties are taller, to about 30 inches, while those with straplike leaves top out at around 12 inches.

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Most caladiums require part shade, though there are varieties bred to thrive in full sun. They can be grown in full shade, but the leaf color won’t be as vibrant. They grow best when the weather is hot and humid.

You might hear caladiums called angel’s wings or elephant ears, though they are not the same species as their larger Alocasia or Colocasia cousins, also with the common name elephant ears.

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Caladiums do send out a bloom called a spathe, however it’s not one of the most attractive flowers, and people often remove it, since it saps energy from the tuber.

You can find potted caladiums at the garden center, but for the largest selection of varieties, growing them yourself from tubers is the way to go.

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To grow them yourself, plant the tubers outdoors after all chance of frost has passed in your area. In cold regions, you can give the plants a jump by starting the tubers indoors four to six weeks before the last frost date. In frost-free areas (zones 9 to 13) plant anytime and the plants will come back year after year.

Caladiums prefer moist, rich soil that drains well. They don’t do well when it’s dense or heavy. Be sure soil temperatures are at least 70 degrees when planting.

Water so that the soil stays moist, but not soggy. The leaves will turn yellow if overwatered.

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The plants are heavy feeders, so fertilize every two weeks throughout the summer with a formulation low in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen affects the color.

Caladiums are native to the tropical forests of Central and South America. In most parts of the U.S. – meaning anywhere colder than zone 9 – they will not survive the winter. Dig them up in the fall before the first frost or when soil temperatures fall to 55 degrees. Store in peat moss or sawdust (never in plastic) in a cool, dark, dry place, or buy new tubers each year.

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Grow a single variety per container or combine multicolored varieties to create a stained-glass effect. They also look great as companions to other shade-lovers: perennials such as ferns and astilbes, and annuals, in particular impatiens, coleus and fuchsia.

All parts of caladiums are toxic to humans, cats, and dogs.

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