Many of my friends are crazy about caladiums. I’m not much for foliage plants; if it doesn’t flower or fruit, why bother? But after seeing the range of sizes and colors that can sizzle in a shady corner, I’m convinced. I’ll be planting bulbs come spring. I look forward to seeing bright red and pink in deep shade where nothing else of interest will grow.
While big box stores do carry caladium bulbs – and btw, “bulbs” is a misnomer, they are actually tubers – they tend to be of smaller diameter. Caladiums sizes are, largest to smallest, mammoth, jumbo, #1, and #2. Bigger bulbs have more eyes and so will result in more (not bigger) leaves. Generally speaking, two #1 bulbs will give the same size display as one jumbo. If the bulb size isn’t given, look for bulbs that are at least 1 ½ inches in diameter.
Unlike true bulbs, caladium tubers will not increase in size over the season unless you have very specific growing conditions – highly organic acid soil, and a specific frost time. These conditions are found in Lake Placid – no, not that one. The one in Florida. This tiny town just north and west of Lake Okeechobee has ancient peat bogs for planting, and gets its first 60 degree weather in mid October to trigger leaf drop. Farther north, cold weather doesn’t give the plants enough time to gather energy to form bigger tubers. Further south, and there’s not enough cold to induce forming. Along with the ridiculously acidic conditions in the peat bogs, this makes itty bitty Lake Placid, FL the caladium capital of the world. Their foliage farms are family owned, often run by third or fourth generation growers. TIme and hurricanes have not been kind to the industry, and only eight farms are left of the 52 that existed in the 1970s. But they still provide 98% of the worldwide supply of caladium bulbs to eager gardeners across the nation and the world.
When you buy online from the growers, they will ship in the spring so you will have fresh bulbs when the temperatures are right – the days should be consistently above 60 degrees to avoid damaging the plants. Now is the time to pre-order. Enjoy browsing the variety of colors and shapes. Do you want large white ghostly leaves lurking under an oak? Short, hot color by the front door? Monet-like dots and details? The more I look, the more places I find that could use some easy summer color. Check the descriptions – some newer cultivars can take full sun if they have plenty of water, but all will shine in the shade.
In Orange County, Caladium bulbs will lose size over time. Start with large bulbs, and you will have a beautiful display for the warm season, and next year, too. If you have sandy or heavy soil, it helps to add peat moss or compost before planting. Unlike bulbs, these odd-looking tubers are planted roots up – the bottom is smooth. Plant shallowly, just an inch or two under the soil, and keep moist. Caladiums don’t need much fertilizer; in fact, too much will cause brown patches on the lighter colored leaves.
For the most spectacular displays all summer long, consider planting bulbs in April, and when they start to decline, trim the leaves or plant again in August for fresh leaves through October.
Pots are good for Caladiums, too. Use a 6 inch pot for a jumbo bulb, or multiple smaller bulbs. A peat-based potting mix provides the acidity the plants prefer. Cover them with 1 ½ inches of soil and keep moist. When cold weather comes, protect the pots – the tubers will be damaged if the soil temperature goes below 40 degrees.
In colder climates, bulbs must be dug and stored above 60 degrees to overwinter. Here, the soil may stay warm enough to avoid damage, and still provide a new display of leaves next April. For more information about growing caladiums, see http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/caladiums.html
This blog post was written by UF IFAS Extension Orange County Master Gardener, Mary Ann Pigora, class of 2017. The UF IFAS Extension Orange County Master Gardener Volunteers play a crucial role in the outreach of UF IFAS Extension.