I usually write about perennials and native plants, but I like to try other things as well. I’ve dabbled with caladiums off and on through the years, and never been very happy with the results. These are tropical plants that are sold as annuals in our area. I think that I put them in spots with too much competition with tree roots (hence, dries out in the summer) and perhaps too much shade. This year I put them in some mixed planters, in potting soil of course, and they got full sun for several hours late morning into mid-day. I was afraid they would burn, but with watering a couple of times a week, that was never an issue. So I think that in the ground the secret of success is going to be improved soil—that is, amended with organic material like compost; shade in the hot afternoon, and reliable watering. (See photo at top of this article.)
I’ve always been fond of caladiums. I like that end of the color spectrum—white, to pink, to red, and I like the bold texture. I went to Hillwood (Estate, Museum and Gardens) in D.C. a couple of weeks ago, and they were used to great effect in the gardens there. They were used in clusters in the ground, and apparently cared for better than I did when I had them in my garden. (See two photos bottom this article.) The deer have not bothered mine, and although there was some deer browse at Hillwood on their hostas, the caladiums were untouched. Rutgers University has them as a level “C” on their deer-resistance list (“Occasionally Severely Damaged”), which is better than hosta.
You can buy caladiums from your local garden center in spring, as “bulbs” or in pots. (Although we call them bulbs, they are really tubers. Your favorite tuber is probably the potato.) They are tropical, and you should wait until mid-May or early June before planting in the ground as they need both warm air temperatures and warm soil to thrive. If you get the tubers, you would be best to start them inside in pots. Tubers are also available from online bulb specialists, like Brent and Becky Heath. If you are really into caladiums, ordering online would probably give you a greater selection and the option for larger tubers. I bought mine potted from Behnke’s, of course.
As the days get shorter and cooler, the plants will start to go dormant, the leaves dying back. They will not survive outdoors here. My recollection is that they don’t perform as well the second year if you try to save them for next spring. You are faced with storing the bulbs for 6 months in a warm, dry location, and they are going to dry out. (Think about storing a head of garlic on a kitchen counter for 6 months.)
If you are an avid gardener who saves seed and keeps geraniums from year to year, you can probably make it work, but for the average gardener (I was going to say “for the normal person”), I think it’s best to just start with new plants each year. As an experiment, I’ll dig mine up, let them dry for a couple of weeks and then layer them in newspaper and put them in the basement, and see what happens, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. I’m already starting my shopping list for next spring, and caladiums are going to be first on the list.
Here is a link to a comprehensive fact sheet on caladiums from Clemson University.
Larry Hurley, Retired Behnke’s Horticulturist