Great Big Leaves

– Posted in: Garden Design

Great big leaves! I love big leaves! Maybe I’m just a chlorophyll-o-phile, but as a foliage-fiend building a garden leaf by leaf, I’m forever tinkering with plant combinations based upon foliage associations. I work with contrasts and harmonies in sizes, shapes, textures–even colors. And the bigger the leaf, the more I can do with it. After all, a big leaf contrasts well with smaller ones, and the bigger the leaf, the greater the kinds of contrasts to be made. Big leaves are sometimes brazen enough to create their very own garden statement, by serving as an eye-grabbing focal point.  So, I’m always on the lookout for big, bold leaves, leaves like Gulliver might have seen in his travels to Brobdingnag. All of which sort of begs the question: How big is big?

Let’s say big as a bathmat, more or less. For starters, it depends on whether we’re talking plants that are hardy or tender. Happily, there are a surprising number of plants that flaunt freakishly large foliage in both categories. For today we’ll stick with a sun-loving sampler of annuals, tropicals and tenders. We’ll bask in the shade of hardier fare in a future post. 

For me the undisputed colossus of chlorophyll, the king of big, the sultan of size, is Colocasia gigantea, an elephant ear so big it makes the elephant look small. (Yes, I know about gunnera, but despite my very best efforts I have been unable to grow that marvel of massiveness in my garden) Anyway, these elephant ears grow with a propulsive abandon that’s almost scary. Planted in rich soil, well fed and watered, the aptly named giant elephant ear’s new shoots leap from the ground with a speed that’s almost audible. It fires its softly rounded, leafy arrowhead up to the sky, one after another, as if to blot out the blue, but their sheer mass soon brings the leaves back toward earth. And the leaves just keep on coming, each one bigger than the last. One plant makes a season-long focal point. Heck, one plant could make a whole garden.  

I like all the elephant ears; my current second favorite being Colocasia esculenta‘Illustris’. It’s got dark, dark leaves veined with a smeary delta of chartreuse. Like its siblings, it combines well with almost anything else. Unlike its brethren, it’s particularly suited to making fun color echoes, as with this sweet little Nicotiana whose seeds came to me from Nan, via the Mid-Atlantic Group Hardy Plant Society seed exchange.

             For sheer wow-power, it’s hard to beat the exquisitely weird Bed of Nails (Solanum quitoense) seen above. It’s doormat-sized leaves have edges like the reflections in a funhouse mirror, a surplus of lethal-looking thorns (on the tops and bottoms of the leaves and along the stems), and are a vaguely gray green tinged with lovely hint of purple, thanks in part to a downy fuzz–yep, it’s purplish–that carpets the leaves. Each leaf also boasts its own delta of prominent veins. It bears ping pong ball-sized fruit that ripens to a lovely orange gold and, in the tropics , is prized for the delicious juice it yields. This sun-lover is easy to start form seed (pretend you’re starting a tomato and proceed accordingly) and grows with abandon once summer heats up. A wonderful foil for softer textured annual grasses, coleus, heck almost anything.


Another tropical fruit that makes a fine foliar statement is payaya, Carica papaya. Easy from seed, but they must be started early. Early February is when I sow mine. Once the weather heats up, they’ll take off, especially if their thirst for water and hunger for fertilizer is quenched regularly. They look great with almost anything, thanks to the wildly cut edges of their leaves. One of these years I’ll perfect a technique for overwintering these things and succeed in getting some fruit. In the meantime, the leaves will do very nicely, thank you.

Don’t try eating a castor bean (Ricinus communis). They are deadly poisonous. But what pretty poison! Their palmate leaves are the absolute personification bold beauty. Easy as pie from seed, they even self sow sometimes in my Zone 6 garden. They grow incredibly fast and are one of the few annuals that may require a chainsaw for fall clean-up. For burgundy blushed beauty, try the seed strains New Zealand Purple or one of the Carmencitas. For sheer size, grow Zanzibarensis–GIGUNDO! (above). As you might guess, all the castor beans are voracious feeders.

Last but by no means least, comes the banana bunch: Chinese yellow banana, Pink velvet banana, Orinoco banana, yada, yada, yada. But the most choice, for my money, is the red Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’). It’s actually not a banana, at least not botanically. Instead, it’s a first cousin–it won’t bear fruit and almost never sends up suckers. But what foliage! Its sturdy, almost leathery leaves are tough enough to avoid getting shredded by wind and rain and are colorful as all get out-blushed with deepest burgundy. They’re massive too. I’ve had leaves about five feet long and two feet wide. Lastly there’s the burgundy-almost ebony-hue of the trunk, which I am careful to expose by trimming any floppy foliage at the very base of the tree. In the ground, in pot–put these anywhere and admire the show. Don’t forget to pour on the water and the fertilizer. I overwinter mine in a cool dark basement and after a few years get a fine-sized specimen.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Michelle August 13, 2008, 1:25 pm

Those are some great photographs along with an even greater list !
I was not familiar with the Zanzibarensis.
Glad you mentioned it.

Another cool large leaf plant is Tetrapanax.
It reaches great height and width.
When I saw your photo of Zanzibarensis, it thought it was that plant.

I also covet my Cussonia paniculata for its foliage size and silvery blue color as well as many of my palm trees .

again, nice photos !

Hi Michelle-We must be on the same plant page. I like that tetrapanax too, and plan to include it in a post about hardy plants with big leaves. Here in Zone 6 it dies back to the ground in winter so never reaches those high altitudes and mass proportions.

And I had a Cussonia for several years, until I got tired of overwintering it indoors–great foliage plant thought its leaves aren’t that big. Fantastic looking though!–Steve

Nancy Bond August 13, 2008, 1:50 pm

Ouch! Bed of Nails looks positively evil! 🙂 Great shots…your garden looks gorgeous.

Thanks Nancy–I’ve often thought it would be fun to have a malevolent garden, with lots of spiky, prickly things and loads of poisonous plants. Maybe someday.–Steve

Gail August 13, 2008, 6:31 pm

There is only one word for these leaves! Wow! Fabulous photos and the gardens are beautiful

Thank you Gail. Yes, I’m a sucker for foliage, for me leaves are the linchpin of the whole garden. And with all the shapes, colors and sizes that are out there, you can get plenty of pizzaz without worrying too too much about flowers. It makes designing color combos a lot easier.–Steve

Dee/reddirtramblings August 13, 2008, 9:10 pm

Very nice post. I love both elephant ears, ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Illustis.’ I use both of them in my shade garden. I think I want the bed of nails next year. Yum.~~Dee

Dee– Thanks! I like Black Magic too. I give all those elephant ears full sun, a big weekly drink of fertilizer (if they’re in pots)–they love it. And Bed of Nails is fun though it can be a challenge to find seed. There’s also a thornless form making the rounds, but heck, why bother. The thorns are what make it so intriguing. There are lots of other weird, wonderful solanums out there too.–Steve

Ewa In The Garden August 14, 2008, 1:38 am

OOh, what a size!
Most surprising comes ricinus, cos it gives suddenly proportions, and so surprising proportions 🙂

Hi Ewa–Yes, those castor beans just jump up out of the ground. Amazing vigor.–Steve

our friend Ben August 14, 2008, 11:16 am

Yes to bananas, castor beans and elephant ears! (And, or course, all the fabulous cannas.) But who’d have thought papaya leaves would look so good?!! Gotta try ’em next year. Thanks for the heads-up!

Elly-You can’t beat those papayas for having a cool shape and beefy size. Just start ’em early and let ’em go. Plants can easily reach 4 or maybe even 5 feet in a single season. I’ve been using them for years. Didn’t include cannas, though I can never have enough of them–do you know Canna musafolia–monster leaves on that one.–Steve

Wicked Gardener August 14, 2008, 10:33 pm

I think this is the first blog post I’ve read that I wanted to print out and use as a shopping list. I plant topicals (I’m in Florida) and I’m a bit tired of the cannas and bananas. The bed of nails and castor bean were refreshing changes. Who knew the castor bean could get that big? I have to try it.

Hey Wicked! You can have a LOT of fun with these things down in Florida. Don’t forget to try some papaya, and I know there are some incredible gingers–wiith great leaves and great flowers–worth trying too. Enjoy!–Steve

Chookie August 16, 2008, 1:22 am

It must be Noxious Weed Week up over — I’ve just written to Digging about Lantanas and now you come up with Castor Oil Plant! Definitely a no-no here, but I’ll give you a Sydney plant in exchange: the marvellous Gymea Lily, or Spear Lily. Hope you like it!

Lisa at Greenbow August 27, 2008, 7:51 pm

What marvelous huge foliage. If I could grow all of those things I would do so. My space is limited and I don’t have anyplace to store those bulbs and banana trees during winter. I will just have to look at these lovely pictures and sigh…

Thanks Lisa–Storing the stuff can be a challenge, but my bananas, cannas et al just go in the basement, no light, no water, no nothing all winter. Easy peasy. But if that’s not workable, go for the seed stuff-papaya, solanum quitoense, castor beans–they’ll do the trick.–Steve

catzgarden September 1, 2008, 12:41 am

Great post, fantastic pictures. I love fast-growing, dramatic plants, like the banana, castor, and the monsteras that have huge leaves.

And the bed of nails! I had never heard of that before. Thanks for a very evocative, inspirational post.

Neil September 27, 2008, 10:10 am


Your plants are gorgeous. I need some help though. I am in zone 5a. I would like to know what plant it is with a shape of a star and color maroon. It’s the picture below the bed of nails. Where do I buy seeds and when to sow it if I am in chicago?

Again, very beautiful plants and perfect contrast!


Hi Neil–The plant you’re asking about is a castor bean. You want one of the bronzy, burgundy ones like Carmencita or New Zealand Purple. A good source for seeds is JL Hudson, you can google the name and order online. I’ve found it helps to soak seed overnight before sowing, and though you can certainly start them about 2 months before the last frost date, you could also just put seeds in the ground after danger of frost has passed. They grow incredibly fast but need lots of heat to really thrive. If you start them isndie give the pots plenty of warmth-70s at least and use a 3 inch or bigger peat pot to provide room for the big seeds and the big seedlings they make. Plants resent root disturbance, so peat pots are good since you can plant pot and all. –Steve

Neil September 28, 2008, 10:36 pm

Hi Steve,

I did more research about castor beans and found out that they are deadly. I told my kids that I want to buy the seeds but have told them not to go near them. They usually follow me. He even had a question earlier and was very funny. What dad if I look at it, will I die…LOL. Anyways, I really like to plant them this spring but I am very worried about the other kids in the neighborhood. There are many kids who pass by our backyard(not on my property) and I am worried that they might get attracted to the showy leaf, play with it, then the juice of the leaf gets to their finger, or they might pick the seeds or flowers. What are your thoughts?


Neil–I have a 10-year-old and have grown castor beans all his life. We have very strict rules about eating plants, which he understands, but it’s not as if he was ever even tempted. If you’re worried, plant them toward the back of a border, or position them so they are surrounded by other plants and therefore difficult to get to. The plants are deadly poisonous, but then so are lots of other common garden plants. Foxgloves, for example. The seeds are the most poisonous part, but all parts are no good for eating. So just keep it out of reach.–Steve

Neil September 29, 2008, 4:09 pm

Hi Steve,

Sorry, this is becoming a forum. 🙂 How do I email you instead? However, please let me know if posting here is fine. Going back to the picture that has the castor bean plant. On the left side of the picture is another plant with color green star shaped leaf. What is that plant? Is it papaya? What about the plant just beside the castor bean, is it banana plant or canna? What is the exact species?

I’m sorry, I have so many questions. 🙂


Posting here is always fine, Neil! The green star-shaped leaf is papaya, the canna is, I think, ‘Richard Wallace’–ask for it as Canna ‘Richard Wallace’. Most any mid-sized, green-leaved canna would give basically the same effect–I often cut the flowers off if they clash with my color combinations, but this one’s yellow blooms would be fine in this combo. By the way, all those plants are in pots, which is a fun and easy way to experiment with making plant groupings.–Steve

Neil October 8, 2008, 7:38 pm

Good evening Steve. Can I grow papaya in Chicago? Will it be big enough before it reaches fall? And is it possible to overwinter it?

Also, I received the 2 Ensete Maurelii today. They are like 40 to 46 inches tall. How do I remove the most outer bad looking leaf so that it will look like yours? Do I remove it upto the root part?

And also, since it’s cold in our area now, how do I take care of it during winter? I placed it in the basement near the window where it will get 20 mins of sunlight daily. Is that fine?

Sorry Neil–I missed this. Yes you can grow papaya, start seed indoors in early February, then plant it out after danger of frost has passed. With some liquid fertilizer, it could easily grow 3-4 feet in a sesaon. I’m working out the details overwintering as a dormant plant, but think it’s possible.

On the Ensete, I cut leaves back to the very base of the plant taking care not to slice into any inner leaves. The key for winter is cool temps-50s or lower, so I hope your basement is cold. I keep mine in the dark, so don’t know about sun. Remember–you’re not trying to make them grow in winter, you’re just trying to keep them alive.–Good luck, Steve

Neil October 18, 2008, 2:38 am

Hey, no problem.

On the Ensete again, I paused for a while and my mind traveled 3 years to the future after seeing these pictures.

It’s very nice that it becomes really huge and tall but I can’t visualize how to plant it to the ground the next spring. From what I remember, the roots die when we overwinter them in the basement but the corm survives. So how will the huge/tall Ensete Maurelii be able to grasp the soil if planted in the ground? Like the one in picture which has 14″ in diameter bottom, how deep should soil be dug?


Hi Neil–You’re not likely to get one quite that big if you live in cold winter area. But the roots don’t die back and as the plant grows it develops a pretty sizeable root ball that is enough to provide stability if the plant is in the ground. Also, when you plant it out, cut off most of the outer leaves, the plant is less top heavy and it’s easier for it to stay upright until it sets out some more substantive roots. That said, I’ve never had one topple over.–Steve

koen declerck March 2, 2009, 9:06 am

The picture of the patio with the Ensete Maurelli is magnificent. Stunning ! Congratulations on your way of exotic gardening, and your garden in general. Keep up the good work !
Flanders (Belgium)

Thanks Koen–I plan to keep at it, but am thinking about re-inventing some of it by using edibles to provide some dramatic foliage elements plus the beauty of their maturing fruit (vegetables).–Steve

Madison April 28, 2016, 8:24 pm

so i found these BIG LEAFY vegetable plants near a lake. they have a strong onion smell in the stalk a white stalk that grows underground. WHAT IS IT!!!??

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