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From the Spring Home and Garden magazine: "OUT OF THE ORDINARY"

Make your neighbors' eyes pop: Plant a lovable giant

By Nila Smith

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[May 02, 2014]  This year, add a lovable giant to your landscape and make your neighbors' eyes pop!

In the fairy tale story of Jack and the beanstalk, the stalk Jack climbed may very well have been a castor bean! The castor bean plant grows 4, 5, 6 and even 7 feet tall during the course of a summer. It possesses large leaves, a heavy stalk and comes in a variety of colors, including dark green, a deep red and an orange-red bronze color.

While some of the younger generations may not know about castor oil, many old-timers can tell you that as kids their mothers gave them a spoonful to cure what ailed them. The oil was most commonly used as a laxative to cure a stomachache and came from the castor bean.

The fact is, the castor bean dates back to ancient days and has been found in such exotic locations as the tombs of ancient Egypt.

In the garden, the castor bean plant, scientifically named Ricinus, can add height and interest to your landscape. These are great plants to use against the bare side of a house to help dress up a drab exterior wall. They are also great to plant in front of open windows to allow for added privacy.

Having the plants outside a bedroom window, for example, will allow for open windows and blinds in the late summer when nights start to cool. In addition, the rustle of the extra-large leaves in a gentle breeze can be very relaxing as one prepares for sleep.

The plants are believed to have originated in the tropical climates of east Africa, but history shows they have shown up in several other places, such as Egypt and China.

Locally, the plants can be grown from seed as an annual and will thrive in the warm summer days of Logan County. The seeds are not readily available in this area but can be found in many of the popular garden seed catalogs. The nice thing is, once you buy the first seeds, you need never buy again.

The plant produces a cluster of seed pods late in the growing season. The pods can be harvested and the seed saved for future plantings. To harvest the seed, the best method may be to cut the entire cluster off the stalk, drop it into a paper bag and store it for the winter in a cool but not freezing location.

Each pod will have three segments. When you're ready to plant, pop the pod apart, then break open each segment to find the bean-shaped seed inside. If you want to add drama to the yard instantly, start the seeds indoors under a grow light, and then transplant the young plants into your garden.

Another great advantage for the treelike plant is that it will provide shade for less heat-tolerant plants such as impatiens. Set your castor plants 2 to 3 feet apart, then fill in with flowering annuals that like shade or partial sun, and watch your garden go from pretty to pretty remarkable!

You should also be aware that the actual castor bean seed is toxic to animals, so if you have pets that run out in your yard or just a favorite squirrel that you wish no harm, be sure not to let the pods fall on the ground. On the other hand, they are a quick cure for killing underground varmints such as moles. Dig a hole in their "run," drop in a half-dozen seeds, and the bean will take care of the rest.

One of the biggest challenges the gardener will have with the castor bean plant is getting rid of it in the fall. The thick stalks of the plant make it difficult to remove. The best method is to chop the plant off about a foot above the soil level, then tie a rope around the stump and pull it out with your garden tractor. Loosening the soil around the stump with a pitchfork will make this task a little easier.

Another lovable giant in the garden is the elephant ear. Colocasia by their scientific name, these large-leafed plants are typically considered to be a tropical plant that won't grow successfully in the more northern regions. However, the fact is, you can grow elephant ears in Logan County if you're willing to do the work.

In tropical areas where the air temperature never reaches below 45 degrees, elephant ears are considered a perennial, in that the tuber can be left in the ground during the dormant period or over winter. In this region, where temperatures drop to below freezing, the elephant ear needs to be treated as an annual, with the tuber being dug up in the fall and set out again in the spring.


One drawback of the elephant ear is that it is slow to come out of the ground once it is planted. Experts indicate that it can take up to three weeks for the first green growth to appear above ground.

However, if you want to put pizazz in the garden early in the year, start the tubers in containers in a warm area. Setting a tuber in late March should bring you to a young plant by mid-April. Allowing the plant to grow in the container for a couple of weeks, or more if you have growing room, will allow the gardener to get instant gratification from the elephant ear when planted in the garden in late April or early May.

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When you take the plant to the garden, set it in a sunny to partially shaded area and allow 3 to 5 feet around it for growth throughout the summer.

When fall comes, dig up the tuber. In many cases you will find that there are now multiples where there was once only one. Tubers can be separated, allowing for more plants next year, or plants to give to family or friends.

Elephant ears also come in colors. The typical plant is a rich green, but there are also varieties such as Black Magic, with a deep purple hue. Mixing the two will bring great drama to your landscape and also provide a more appealing backdrop for planting of low-growing blooming plants in front of them. There are also other colors available, such as variegated pinks and reds and a stunning variety called Mojito, which is a variegated bright and dark green with a rich blue-purple.

Finally, not all giants are green. Many enjoy seeing a flowering plant that will stand up and smack them in the face with their color, interest and uniqueness. If that is what you're looking for in your garden, then consider the Datura and Brugmansia. Commonly known as angel's trumpets, these two plants produce similar flowers but grow in different ways.

The Datura angel's trumpet is a lower growing, bush-type plant that will produce large, trumpet-shaped flowers. These plants grow 3 to 5 feet wide and equally as tall, making an excellent backdrop for ground-loving plants.

The Brugmansia is a more dramatic plant that grows in a treelike formation, gathering height and foliage at the top and showing wood stem below. What is most appealing, though, is the hundreds of trumpets that bloom out of the foliage, turning their heads downward to the point where they more resemble large bells than trumpets.

Datura can be planted in the spring and will produce flowers throughout the summer and into late fall. They enjoy full sun to partial shade, like moist feet early in the growing season, but are also drought-tolerant in late summer.

These are a seed-producing plant. Seeds can be harvested in the fall and stored for planting the next spring. Gardeners should use caution with these seeds because, just as the castor bean, they are toxic if consumed.

In the fall, there is no need to dig up the Datura. Depending on the winter season, the plant stands a good possibility of returning in the spring on its own, but if it doesn't, it can be replaced by planting the seeds saved at harvest.

The Brugmansia variety can be grown in the garden or in pots. When using a pot, be sure to choose one that is large enough to support root growth so you will get a large plant with plenty of flowers. It is suggested that the pot be a 5- to 7-gallon size, or approximately 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep. The bigger the pot, the bigger the plant will grow, so if you want something bigger, go for it.

These plants love water and require large amounts, especially if grown in pots. At the same time, they don't particularly like wet feet, so be sure you have a pot that drains well, or that you plant them in a well-draining location in the garden.

As a caution, insects love Brugmansia and may attract some unwanted pests in the garden. The worst of these could be the spider mite. Spider mites are nearly invisible to the naked eye but can be seen with a high-powered magnifying glass. In most cases you will know they are present when you see their plastic-like "webs" covering flowers and foliage. By the time this happens, it is pretty much too late to do anything that will save the plant. The mites in their web literally suck the life from the plants, usually turning them an ugly brown in the process.

If you see the mites early, you can try commercial miticides available at most garden stores. Once you have the mite webs, the best thing to do to protect the balance of your garden is to remove the plant.

As you garden this summer, don't be afraid to bring in a lovable giant or two. The addition of any of these four large growing plants will put the sizzle on the steak, so to speak, and take your garden from pretty to pretty terrific.


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