Caladiums Can Be Solution To Shade Problems

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Perennial Personalities

When I visited family in Montreal last month, a relative asked me a gardening question. “My impatiens all died. What happened?” I explained the problem, and even showed her the illustrations on my app. After I finished, she asked, “Now what should I do with my shade?”

A slightly different version of this conversation took place in Atlanta, where impatiens were doing quite well in a friend’s garden, but she had heard about impatiens dying all over the city, “for some reason.” We admired her plantings and I went through my now-familiar spiel. After I finished, she asked, “Now what should I do with my shade?”

We have all heard this question, but as widespread as downy mildew damage on impatiens may be, it is not everywhere, as there are still significant parts of the country not affected (read more in “Impatiens Downy Mildew Incidence Down Significantly In 2013,” a link at GreenhouseGrower.com/October2013. However, confusion is rampant among consumers, including gardeners and professionals.

Consider All Of The Alternatives
I have no more answers than the next person. People are asking for alternatives and while I can talk begonias, New Guinea impatiens, coleus, lobelia — I’ve even had limited success with vinca and calibrachoa — there is no doubt that there are shady sinkholes and they may be getting larger.  
Yet there is a crop that keeps getting better and that so many of us have ignored for too long. I, too, have been an “ignorer,” but having seen what’s happened in recent years, I have become a believer. The crop is well- known yet underused (everywhere north of Zone 8). It is the caladium.
Before you move on, allow me to expand. When I ask people why they don’t use more caladiums, I get hit with:

1. They’re annuals
2. They’re expensive
3. They take too much time to look good.

These are all valid points, but the same complaints have been heard about other plants like taro, canna and hibiscus.  
In response to these concerns, I say:

  1. Annual, schmannual. Big deal. Like other annuals, caladiums provide color and are easy to maintain. I’ve seen bananas and taro in Madison and Chicago — why not caladiums?
  2. Yes, they are more expensive than impatiens — many plants are. While they may not sell in tonnage, price, quality and distribution are all there.
  3. For too long, caladiums have been treated like dry bulbs and tubers at garden centers — a bunch of dry, amorphous blobs that intimidate all but the hardiest of plantspeople. They should be shown off in gallon containers and let the foliage do the selling.
  4. Growing is not difficult; give them bottom heat to get them going and watch them take off. Even my students can grow them! Work with a good caladium producer — they are waiting to hear from you in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

Caladiums Can Help Solve Your Shade Problems
Caladiums are poised to help answer the question, “Now what should I do with my shade?” Breeders have been hybridizing caladiums for full sun, which is good, but right now, we need more shade material, and these fit the bill.
They are spectacular plants. If you last looked at caladiums five years ago, look again. Colors are exceptional, plants have been bred to work in baskets and mixed containers, and they are a landscaper’s dream — tough and shade-loving.

Meanwhile, downy mildew may be no more than a passing phase, and if producers and landscapers handle the situation adeptly, it may cease to be a problem. Let’s hope so, but let’s also supplement that hope with smart choices. GG

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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