Caladiums are colorful choices

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 15, 2011

If you asked me about my favorite plants for summer color, caladiums would absolutely be on the list. You won’t find a better plant for reliable color in areas that get some shade. And one investment can provide years of color.

Easy enough for the casual gardener to expect routine success, the caladium’s elegant beauty also makes it a staple in the most accomplished gardener’s landscape. Native to tropical South America, caladiums grow from tubers and thrive in the heat and humidity of our long summers. They are remarkably free from major insect or disease problems.

Caladiums are grown for their attractive foliage. The 6-to-12-inch, heart-shaped leaves emerge from the ground on arching stems that are generally 1 to 2 feet tall but can grow taller. The foliage may be splashed with combinations of white, pink, rose, red, burgundy, chartreuse or green, often with several colors combining in wonderful patterns. These bright leaves with their bold texture embellish our shady gardens from May until October when the tubers go dormant.

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Caladiums grow best in shade to part shade (two to four hours of direct sun, preferably morning) or bright, dappled light. In these conditions they produce the lushest growth with large, colorful leaves. Some cultivars are more tolerant of sunny conditions and are successful in beds that get part to full sun (six hours or more of direct sun). But I still think caladiums planted in full sun always seem to look stressed. In any event, avoid hot, dry, sunny locations for best results.

The caladium plants you purchase at nurseries are usually grown in shady greenhouses, and the foliage will often scorch or burn if you plant them into beds that receive too much direct sun. This results in brown areas and holes literally burned into the leaves. If the sunlight conditions are appropriate, however, the new leaves that emerge will adapt to the increased sunlight and not burn.

You can purchase caladiums two different ways. Buying tubers is the most economical way to add caladiums to your landscape. You can plant them directly into well-prepared beds now about 2 inches deep and 8 to 12 inches apart.

You should see growing points or even pinkish-white sprouts on the knobby side of the tuber. That side is planted up. The smoother side is the bottom. Wait until leaves have emerged and grown several inches tall before mulching them.

Keep beds of caladiums well watered during summer, especially those receiving lots of sun.

The colorful, tropical foliage of caladiums combines beautifully with impatiens, begonias, torenias, liriope, ferns, hydrangeas, achimenes, gingers and other shade-loving plants. They are generally more effective when a single color or variety is used in a bed or landscape. If several colors are used, they are most effective when masses or groups of each color are combined in the planting.

Dan Gill is a LSU AgCenter Horticulturist.