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Caladiums please the eye

Two showcases this month celebrate the plant's splashy good looks, but this garden powerhouse is more than a pretty face.

By Yvonne Swanson, Special to the Times
Published August 11, 2007


Bright pinks and light greens help make these Caladiums appealing to the eye.
photo
[Photo by Yvonne Swanson]
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It has been nearly three years since the world's caladium crop was nearly wiped out by hurricanes that hit Lake Placid in Central Florida, the caladium capital of the world. But now there's a bumper crop of the colorful, leafy plants, and growers and gardeners are excited.

Unlike two years ago, when few bulbs or plants were for sale, this year's 17th Annual Caladium Festival - Aug. 24-26 in Lake Placid, where 98 percent of the world's caladiums are grown - will offer thousands of bulbs and plants at discount prices. Visitors compare Lake Placid's 1,200 acres of red, white and pink caladium fields to the colorful tulip fields in Holland.

The 14 farms in Lake Placid produce about 140-million caladium bulbs each year, which sell for $24-million to customers worldwide. The Lake Placid area is ideal for producing caladium bulbs because it sits on a highly developed peat bog, essentially 20 feet of black, acidic muck, the perfect soil for bulb production. Caladiums have been a crop in Lake Placid since the 1940s.

Often called the geranium of the South, leafy caladiums are a warm-weather tropical that originated in the rainforest. In our area, they make excellent perennial bedding plants for shady and partially shady locations, although some will grow in full sun if they receive plenty of water. Potted caladiums also can be grown indoors in bright light.

There are 40 varieties of caladiums, with colors ranging from bright white and pale pink to orange and deep red, and the plants are classified into three categories. "Fancy Leaf" varieties have heart-shaped leaves and grow 18 to 22 inches tall. "Dwarf Leaf" varieties have smaller heart-shaped leaves and grow 15 to 17 inches tall. True dwarfs are the "Strap Leaf" varieties, which reach 12 to 14 inches tall and have elongated heart-shaped, narrow leaves.

Caladium bulbs or tubers are graded according to size; they range from 4-inch super mammoths and jumbos to the small No. 3 size usually sold in bulb bags at discount centers. Terri Bates, production manager at Bates Sons & Daughters Caladium Growers in Lake Placid, recommends using at least No. 1 bulbs, which are about 1.5 to 2.5 inches in diameter. The large-sized bulbs yield more leaves per plant and perform better over multiple growing seasons. Smaller bulbs typically produce short-lived plants, she says.

Healthy bulbs should be firm and bright yellow. Don't use bulbs with brown streaks or milky-white areas, a pungent odor or slimy coverings, signs of bacteria or fungus, Bates says.

The Bates family business, which has been breeding and growing caladiums for 50 years, supplied the 23,000 caladiums planted at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center near Orlando. During its Florida Caladium Showcase, which runs through Sept. 15, visitors can admire about two dozen varieties planted inside a 4.5-acre atrium billed as "the world's largest indoor caladium display" and throughout the 65-acre property. The resort hosts the caladium display each summer, although the past several years were scaled back dramatically because of the hurricane-related shortage of plants.

"This year's crop is great. It's absolutely fabulous," says Tristen Smith, lead horticulturist at Gaylord Palms. Caladium is "a summer survivor that can survive our heat and last until fall. It's just a really, really great Florida plant."

Virtually free of pests and diseases, caladiums are low-maintenance and provide long-lasting, bright color, Smith says.

Caladiums like rich, organic soil that's kept moist, especially when planted in full sun, Gaylord horticulturist Don Ekema says. You can feed them with a slow-release granular fertilizer that will last for several months (such as Osmocote 14-14-14).

Caladiums can be planted from late March through fall, but as soon as daytime temperatures drop below 65 degrees, the foliage will begin to decline. Don't cut the leaves and stems back right away, or next year's plant will be smaller, Ekema warns. Wait until nighttime temperatures dip into the low 40s and the plant dies back.

Caladiums are biennial, which means they will perform for two seasons, but many gardeners contend that the plants can live years longer, although they may not be as hardy as in previous years.

Look for these varieties, based on your growing conditions:

- Shade: All caladium varieties perform well in full to partial shade.

- Full sun: Grey Ghost, Fantasy, Red Flash, Carolyn Whorton, White Queen, Pink Cloud, Sweetheart, White Wing, White Ruffles, Red Frill, Pink Gem, Red Ruffles, Rosalie and Lance Whorton retain their height and color in full sun. Aaron, Elise, Candidum Jr. and Miss Muffett will grow in full sun, but will lose some color and require more frequent watering.

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.

If you go

* Florida Caladium Showcase, through Sept. 15 at Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, 6000 W Osceola Parkway, Kissimmee (Exit 65 off Interstate 4 eastbound). Information: (407) 586-0000 or visit www.gaylordpalms.com. Groups of 20 or more can arrange a tour with a horticulturist by calling Melissa Gioia at (407) 586-1604.

* 17th Annual Caladium Festival, Aug. 24-26, Stuart Park in Lake Placid. Plant and bulb sale, bus tours to caladium fields, entertainment, arts and crafts, refreshments and more. Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 24-25; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 26. Information: Greater Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce at (863) 465-4331 or www. visitlakeplacidflorida.com. 

[Last modified August 10, 2007, 20:27:41]


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