Janie Chisholm, hosta collector, is among the people struggling this week to come up with something good to say about their sun-scorched gardens. Not that anybody wants to be out "enjoying" them anyway.
"I'm so sick of watering and everything still looks like death," Janie says.
But one bright spot for Janie is most anywhere in her yard that she has planted caladiums.
"Out of everything I have in my gardens, the caladiums are probably looking better than anything else. ... I think they're real cheery. They make me happy to look at them."
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With their fancy, ruffled leaves that are often spotted and have contrasting margins and veins, caladiums are in the same family as lighthearted elephant ears.
"I like that they add a spark of color and stay there all summer long. There's no deadheading," says Jan Longhofer, who has a dazzling display of deep-pink caladiums spilling out of cobalt-blue pots on each of her front steps.
"There's a huge variety," says Janie, who figures she planted six varieties of caladiums — some of which I'd never seen before — in her yard this year. "They seem to tolerate these conditions better. My hostas, they look really, really stressed, and these seem to let you know when they need a drink, and then they perk up."
One reason caladiums look good this time of year is that they get a late start. They are tropical tubers — often generically refereed to as bulbs — that can't be planted until the soil is hot, at least 70 degrees. (By contrast, tomatoes need at least 60 degrees to germinate.) Most of them are shipped from Florida. Sometimes Janie doesn't plant hers until early June, though some years it's mid-May.
Jan finds that caladiums are a good follow-up to pansies, which fade once the weather gets hot. She sometimes starts her caladiums indoors earlier in the spring to avoid that empty-soil look that can last three to four weeks until the leaves emerge. Jan puts them in 4-inch pots in a very sunny window in the house until things warm up enough to take them outside.
Caladiums also can be purchased at local garden centers already in leaf, so you don't have to wait for results. But Janie and Jan order their caladiums online from www.caladiumworld.comso they have access to more varieties and can buy in bulk. Janie goes in with several other gardeners on her orders so that they can try more kinds for less money.
Caladiums are meant for dappled shade, and Jan says many can take morning sun. Some varieties are supposed to be more sun-tolerant than others, but Jan says Kansas sun can be much harsher than sun in other parts of the country, so she doesn't like to push her luck. Those pink beauties on her front steps, for example?
"Florida Sweetheart is prettier more in the shade."
Caladiums are not drought-tolerant; they should be kept in moist but not drenched soil. They also are not Wichita-winter-tolerant: Janie treats them like annuals and replaces them every year, while Jan digs hers up in October, leaving the foliage on until it dies, and then stores the tubers in paper bags according to color in her basement for the winter. She only carries them over for one year, though, before starting over with new bulbs.
The color combinations are tantalizing. The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants lists, for example: White Queen, with white leaves gradually shading toward the deep green margins, and red veins that bleed slightly; Miss Muffett, lime-green leaves with burgundy-red speckles and variably bright red veins; Gingerland, gray leaves with white ribs, dark green edges and maroon spots.
"I'm really liking Gingerland," Janie says. She plants caladiums as ruffles around the bases of trees, as companions to other plants, and in pots, either massed in one variety or mixed up with other caladiums and types of plants. They are a painterly plant.
"I have tons of hostas, so I kind of like to nestle them up to my green hosta. It gives a little brightness there," she says.
This summer, we can use every bit of that we can get.