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Caladiums for the Landscape

Caladiums are tropical foliage plants discovered within the Amazon basin of Brazil. Now widely grown for their colorful leaves, they are used as pot, border, and bedding plants. Mass plantings are used to create a focal point in the landscape. Colorful caladiums provide a striking contrast with the green foliage of other plants, especially when caladiums are planted in the foreground. Count on caladiums to provide summer color in shaded areas where sun-loving flowers won't grow.

Fancy- and strap-leaved varieties are the two main types of caladiums and are distinguished by leaf size and shape. Fancy-leaved types have large heart-shaped leaves, grow best in semi-shade, and may reach a height of 12 to 30 inches, depending on variety and growing conditions. The strap- or lance-leaved types have narrow, elongated leaves and perform best as accent plants in borders, in hanging baskets, and in patio planters.

Varieties exhibit combinations of shades of red, pink, or white, with prominently colored midribs and contrasting backgrounds and borders. The variation in leaf color and pattern provides many uses for caladiums in the landscape.

Nurseries and garden centers offer caladiums as potted plants or dormant tubers. Tubers are available in four different sizes based on diameter and are priced accordingly. Tuber sizes are classified as mammoth, 3 1/2 inches and up; jumbo, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches; No. 1, 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 inches; and No. 2, 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 inches. Large tubers have more leaf buds than small tubers and, therefore, make larger and better displays.

Caladiums require a warm, moist soil to grow. A minimum soil temperature of 70 degrees F is preferred. Planting in cool soil results in slow growth or tuber rot. A good rule of thumb in determining when to set out caladiums is to plant them when you plant okra seed in the vegetable garden.

Each caladium tuber has a large central bud surrounded by several small buds. Most caladium varieties produce only a few colorful leaves if the large central bud is allowed to grow. Its presence prevents the small buds from growing and producing leaves. The small buds are encouraged to grow when the large central bud is removed before planting the tuber. Commercial caladium plant producers do this, and so can gardeners. Use the tip of a sharp knife to lift out the large central bud, being careful not to injure any of the surrounding small buds. De-eyeing also has the beneficial effect of reducing flower production.

Caladiums traditionally needed protection from full sun for best growth and color, but some of the newer varieties tolerate exposure to full sun for a couple of hours daily.

For best growth, plant caladiums in porous soil that contains plenty of organic mater, with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Peat moss or other organic materials such as compost can be used to increase the soil's organic matter content. Plant tubers 2 to 3 inches deep and, depending on their size, 8 to 12 inches apart. At planting time, incorporate a complete nursery special fertilizer into the soil at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per 100 square feet of bed area. Follow this with 1 pound of fertilizer each month during the growing season. Make proportional reductions in amounts of fertilizer for smaller areas. Do not allow fertilizer to contact the caladium leaves. Water thoroughly after fertilization to prevent fertilizer burn.

Mulch caladium plants when they are established to keep the soil moist and cool. Soil temperatures over 85 degrees F can result in leaves with more green color and less of the highly prized brilliant colors. High levels of nitrogen fertilization can produce the same effect.

Most caladium plants will produce flowers during the growing season. The presence of the greenish-white flowers slows production of the colorful leaves, and flowers should be removed as soon as detected.

Caladiums can be treated as annual plants and left in the garden at the end of the season to be killed by cold. However, it is possible to save caladium tubers for planting again the following year. At the end of the growing season, but before the leaves have lost all color and before soil temperatures drop below 55 degrees F, dig the tubers that are to be saved, retaining the foliage, and sort them by color or variety. Spread them out in an area protected from rain and cold, and allow them to dry for a week. Cut or pull the dry foliage from the tubers and remove all dry soil. Place the tubers in a mesh sack and store them where the temperature does not fall below 60 degrees F.

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