Summer long delight for the shade!

By Susan Silverman ©2015
Penn State Master Gardener

The summer garden is not complete without tropical bulbs and tubers. After perennials have peaked and faded, tropicals grown as annuals are a splendid source of season-long, continuing color that add drama, vibrancy and flair. I use dahlias, calla lilies, cannas and caladiums for this purpose. These flowering exotics provide intense color from late May through September but cannot survive winter in our zone.

Caladiums are grown solely for their magnificent foliage and do not flower. Unlike most tropicals, they put on their best show in shade to partial shade and are an invaluable asset in a shade garden. There is a great range of patterns, but the primary colors are red, pink and white. The foliage is intricately veined. White leaves have a deep green channels, reds have darker red delineations and the pinks have bright red margins.

They are almost like mosaics as the the reds and pinks sport an outer band of green and the whites are edged in green. This dramatic foliage, like nature’s stained glass, deserves a space in the front of the border. I think of caladiums as  exclamation points in the garden. They definitely bring the wow factor and light up the shade.


How to Purchase Caladiums

There are two ways of bringing these wonderful additions into your landscape. For instant gratification, buy fully grown plants at the nursery. But this can be cost-prohibitive. My way is much less expensive:

Order a large number of bulbs online in as many colors and as great a quantity as you wish. Do this before April and start the bulbs in a potting mix indoors when they arrive, giving them a jump-start. They must not be planted outside until the nighttime temperatures are consistently above 65 degrees and the soil has warmed. These are tropicals that love heat and frosty nights will be their undoing.


Bulbs come in four sizes: grade 3 is ½-1 inch, grade 2 is 1-1½ inches, grade 1 is 1 1/2-2½ inches and jumbo is 2½-3½ inches. The lower the number, the larger the bulb. The larger bulbs do not have larger leaves, just more of them. The real advantage of the larger bulb is that it will mature more quickly and this is an important consideration for northern gardeners dealing with a fairly short season.

Knobby topped bulbs

The bulbs themselves are a bit confusing. It is difficult to determine which side goes up. They have a smooth bottom and knobby top. Planting top side up will afford the shortest growth time. However, they are like anemones; if they are planted 2 inches deep, the bulbs will find their way and grow.

Watching caladiums emerge and slowly unfurl is a delight. The anticipation is well worth the wait and they give color and drama in the shade, where it is least expected and most appreciated. There are varieties that have been cultivated for sunlight but these require more water.

Harvesting & Overwintering Caladiums

Unlike other tropicals like dahlias and cannas, caladium bulbs grow smaller as their reserves are depleted by the magnificent display. I harvest my bulbs in September before the nighttime temperatures plummet. Dig and let them dry for a week in a protected area, then trim off the foliage. Label the bulbs as to variety and store them in a place where the temperatures are in the high 60s to low 70s.


Caladiums can be placed in fine mesh bags, panty hose or paper bags. Separate them with peat moss. I have had very good results recycling my caladiums by digging, storing and then replanting. However, this requires a bit of effort.

New bulbs will always assure success. I highly recommend going with the jumbo size for the greatest number of leaves. The varieties that I love are ’Gingerland,’ ’White Christmas’ and ’Frieda Hemple.’

I cannot imagine a shade garden without caladiums. They pair so well with all other parts of the landscape, even though they could well take center stage. They bring constant color and drama all season and are well worth the small financial investment.

About the author

Susan Silverman, a Penn State master gardener from Murrysville, Pa. was a co-winner, large garden category, of the 2006 Great Gardens contest.


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