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Enjoy a Caladium Summer

By Thomas Becker

Add soothing tropical color and ambiance to your summer garden. Garden caladiums are easy to grow and add color to any lawn and landscape design.

Plant caladiums each summer (June or July). Follow the next year with spring planting (April and May).  Use caladiums alone as a groundcover or plant multiple bulbs in-between tropical shrubs, perennials and herbs. Or, plant in containers and place the pots among shrubbery where color is needed.

Caladiums, commonly called Angel Wings, originated from the Amazon basin of South America. There are hundreds of named caladium hybrids. Each with its own unique, variegated leaf pattern. Caladiums leaves sprout from any size, dormant bulb planted in summer. A large, jack-in-the-pulpit flower may emerge but never lasts more than a few days.

Newer released hybrids include a dozen named caladiums from researchers at the University of Florida at the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center. Each has better sun tolerance, cold tolerance, leaf color, better tuber resistance to diseases and nematodes.  Plant breeders use leaf characteristics that are genetically inherited: leaf shape, main vein color, color spots, and blotches.

With hybrid names like Tapestry, Hot Flash, Florida Moonlight and Pink Beauty, caladiums fill many garden niches needing color. Caladium leaf colors range from bright green, red, white, yellow, pink and more. For example, use white varieties like Candidum, White Christmas or Pink Beauty to brighten up deep shade under an oak tree.

Caladium hybrids display two different leaf shapes and sizes. Fancy-leaf types have the largest leaves while lance or strap-shaped leaf types stay shorter and denser. Varieties with lance-shaped leaves have greater sun tolerance (20-30% of light reduction compared to 40-50% for fancy leaf types).

All types of caladiums grown in part or full shade display the best foliage color. Avoid planting where caladiums receive full afternoon and/or evening sun. These caladiums perform well with more sun:

  • Fancy-leaved: ‘Aaron’, ‘Candidum Jr.’, ‘Florida Elise’, ‘Florida Fantasy’, ‘Pink Cloud’ and ‘Red Flash’.
  • Strap-leaved: ‘Florida Red Ruffles’, ‘Florida Irish Lace’, ‘Florida White Ruffles’, ‘Florida Sweetheart’ and ‘Pink Gem’.

 Growing Caladiums

Caladiums grow from tubers, commonly referred to as bulbs. Southwest Florida has perfect weather and growing conditions for rapid emergence and leaf display in 20-30 days.

Purchase 2-inch size bulbs or larger. Plant 3-4 bulbs per square foot. A 2’ by 10’ area would require 60-80 bulbs. In summer, cover bulbs with one inch of well-drained sandy soil. Or, use a mixture of peat, compost and garden soil. Spread pine straw or bark mulch. Water the first few weeks without rainfall.

Grown in containers, add caladiums to mixed planters and hanging baskets. Some caladiums have leaf colors and patterns easy on the eyes. Others types draw your attention to their bright color or sharply defined pattern on their leaves.

Avoid planting bulbs in low spots where surface water collects after heavy rain. Tubers can rot any time of year. Florida’s major caladium growers are in Lake Placid, FL. They reported significant flooding damage and tuber loss after Hurricane Irma. Despite these losses, the annual Lake Placid Caladium Festival is scheduled for July 27 to July 29, 2018.

Caladiums do not need fertilize applied in summer or fall. The ideal times are after the bulbs go dormant or before bulb planting in early April. Caladiums grown in more sun use more fertilizer.

Use a controlled release fertilizer like 8-2-12. Charlotte County restricts application of fertilizer that contains nitrogen and phosphorus between June 1 and Sept. 30. Use less fertilizer for white caladium hybrids. Too much plant food causes white leaves to revert to green.

Irrigate caladiums only during summer dry spells. Keeping the soil moist extends the fall caladium display later into early November. Caladiums in landscape beds go completely dormant each winter. Apply a 2-3” layer of organic mulch to hold soil moisture longer increasing tuber survival.

Caladiums have few if any serious pests. Problems vary by the seasons. Most reported problems occur when dormant tubers are dug up by animals and disappear over the winter.  After three or more years left in its original spot the bulbs decrease in number and size. Emerging leaves are noticeably smaller.

Unlike up North, leave your caladiums in the ground over-winter. Caladiums grown in containers on a cold- protected lanai or entranceway will continue producing new leaves all winter.

Each spring, freshen up your caladium bed by either inter-planting new tubers between existing plants or by digging up the old tubers and starting over. Ideally, lifting and resetting old tubers works best.

Thomas Becker is a lifelong gardener and extension educator in horticulture and Florida-Friendly Landscaping™. He teaches workshops and classes for the University of Florida/IFAS/ Extension Charlotte County To ask a gardening question, email him at thomas.becker@charlottecountyfl.gov

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