If you want an instant tropical impact in your rainforest themed garden that survives hard freezes and is easily dug up overwintered as a bulb/corm further north where the ground freezes, the "California" elephant ear is the plant for you. Its also called dwarf elephant ear, which to me is a misnomer. Although "California" has 15 inch leaves while the full sized varieties of alocasias can have leaves up to 5 feet wide, the clumping nature of this plant makes up for the lack in leaf size. The trunks on mine are over a foot tall now despite harsh winters, and it prolifically produces offsets or "pups" at the base which can be propagated or left in place for a full and rounded look.
Usage - Alocasia "California" can be used in the landscape as a backdrop, bursting out of contrasting plants of contrasting texture or color. Ferns make an excellent companion as do ti plants, especially the finer textured ones with black or purple leaves. Try using it in a bed of groundcovers, such as darkly colored liriope or mondo grass... maybe even ornamental sweet potato vine! I have personally chosen to place it alone in an island bed as the focal point of my garden, surrounded only by grass and paired with a black ti plant. To the right you can see my clump emerging after last year's low of 20 degrees. If you are specifically going for a Southeast Asian or Balinese look as I am, Alocasia fits the bill perfectly since they are the "elephant ears" of the region and are used in courtyard gardens as well. If you are going for a Latin American flavor, I would go with a Xanthosoma or Yautia.
Identification - Landscape alocasias are usually upright, glossy and have stiff and succulent leaves. Xanthosomas are best characterized by a triangular leaf that is less glossy and upright than alocasias. Another plant that is commonly confused is the colocasia, which is only rarely pointed upright and is usually not as stiff and glossy as the alocasias. Even the glossiest colocasias point downward, so here's a general rule of thumb to identify an alocasia. Alocasias are generally glossier, more upright pointing and more rigid than other "elephant ears. Once again, this isn't set in stone, but this will usually help you out.
Cultivation - A site with plenty of moisture is best for dwarf elephant ear, but they will also rebound from a short dry spell especially if given a little shade. They are so comfortable in wet conditions that I would recommend this as my top choice for a flood tolerant tropical, since mine endures flooding every single year and thrives in the rainiest weather it can get. Perhaps this has something to do with its origins in Southeast Asia!
If you live where the ground freezes, simply dig up the bulbs in late fall and place in a cool, dark spot over winter. You can help keep the corms from dessicating by placing them in a container and covering with sawdust.
Usage - You can cut the glossy leaves off for use in floral arrangements too! There is no better backdrop in a tropical arrangement, and they keep for one or two weeks if kept in water. A single stalk of an orchid looks stunning in front of one of these waxy green leaves.
Wildlife - Here in Florida, Alocasia "California" is a veritable haven for treefrogs and lizards as well, who savor the pools of water that collect in the leaf axils. Treefrogs eat mosquito larvae and lay their eggs here, while green anoles thrive on eating the baby treefrogs. It sounds horrible, but there are so many treefrogs that they end up becoming a very important part of the food chain and still manage to healthily live in abundance since the lizards keep the population from getting overcrowded and starved. The baby treefrogs eat the mosquito larvae, lizards eat the treefrogs, and non venomous snakes like black racers eat the lizards. Finally, the local red tailed hawks feast on the snakes. All in all, The backyard's wildlife is more abundant with the inclusion of one of my favorite plants, you guessed it, alocasia.
Here a Green Anole warily eyes the predatory camera lens and blends in to the leafy backdrop.