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Butler County gardener calls her love elephant ears 'a sickness'

| Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, 8:55 p.m.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. She's running our of room and has containers all over the backyard.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. She's running our of room and has containers all over the backyard.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. Thes brugmansia flowers are just from one plant.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. Thes brugmansia flowers are just from one plant.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. 'Thai Giant' and Borneo Giant' elephant ears dwarf her in the backyard.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. 'Thai Giant' and Borneo Giant' elephant ears dwarf her in the backyard.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. They are all grown in containers as it's easy to bring them in and out depending on the season.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. They are all grown in containers as it's easy to bring them in and out depending on the season.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. These elephant ears grow tall and wide.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. These elephant ears grow tall and wide.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. She also found an iochroma last season called 'Royal Queen Purple.' It's only supposed to get two feet tall, but has thrived and grown bigger. It will also be saved all winter indoors.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. She also found an iochroma last season called 'Royal Queen Purple.' It's only supposed to get two feet tall, but has thrived and grown bigger. It will also be saved all winter indoors.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. The large leaves have interesting patterns in the foliage.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. The large leaves have interesting patterns in the foliage.
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. Some are huge, but others, like ‘Madeira’ are colorful too.
Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Sharon Schwartz of Penn Township, Butler County grows huge elephant ears and brugmansia plants. Both are tender and need to be stored indoor for the winter. Some are huge, but others, like ‘Madeira’ are colorful too.

There's certainly no question where Sharon Schwartz lives when driving down her street in Penn Township, Butler County.

Huge trumpet-shaped, colorful brugmansia flowers dangle from branches surrounded by pots filled with humungous, deep green leaves of elephant ears. The plants act like a beacon for neighbors and strangers alike who are drawn to the unusual plants, which literally stop traffic.

Schwartz's love of elephant ears (colocasia and alocasia) is a family affair. She was introduced to them eight years ago by her aunt Trish Abrams who sits nearby as her niece talks about the genesis of her obsession.

“She gave me just one small elephant ear and it just stemmed from there,” she says smiling at Abrams.

Even though that first plant didn't make it through the winter indoors, Schwartz was hooked and the next season ordered the varieties that she still favors today, ‘Thai Giant' and ‘Borneo Giant.'

“They got huge,” she says. “They were enormous.”

She sighs while admitting there are more than 10 different varieties growing here with more than 100 large containers surrounding her back porch and filling the backyard. Many of the plants tower over her with tropical leaves several feet long and wide.

‘Mayan Mask' has huge glossy green leaves with dark purple undersides. The giant varieties share space with colorful cultivars like ‘Madeira' which only reaches 2 or 3 feet tall. The foliage emerges green with bluish veins and mature to a dark, velvety purple.

“It's an addiction, it really is,” she says laughing. “It's a sickness.”

Overwintering made easy

Schwartz fertilizes the plants often with Miracle-Gro and a fertilizer that's high in phosphorus to keep them growing strong.

Since the plants are tender, they will need to be moved inside soon. The containers are so big she uses a dolly to move them back into the house, the job takes weeks. She grows some as houseplants and stores the rest.

Over the years, through trial and error, Schwartz has found one of the easiest ways to overwinter the plants is to simply cut off the tops and keep them in a back room that stays cool, around 60 degrees. She will cover the pots with black plastic to keep them in the dark. Others will be pulled from the pot, shaken to remove dirt and placed on a newspaper in the same room. Schwartz has an 80 percent survival rate from year to year.

In the spring, the pots are brought out of dormancy indoors to begin sprouting and brought back outside in May to enjoy the summer. When asked why she goes to all the trouble, Schwartz says, “because they are gorgeous, I've had so many different varieties, they are just so pretty.”

Even though she's running out of space both indoors and outdoors, she still spends time lusting after new varieties.

“I'll try a couple different ones I think,” she says of her guilty pleasure, “but I'm overwhelmed with them.”

It doesn't help that both varieties multiply handily on their own.

“They just have babies on babies,” she says. “I think they have doubled from last year. I have my favorites, but I just have too many and I have a small house.”

She really was never much of a gardener, but now grows lots of other things around the yard including tall brugmansia plants. They are treated similarly to the elephant ears over the winter, but can take more cold in dormancy and live in an unheated garage during the off season. They are well over 6 feet tall and filled with tropical looking flowers that look downward.

“You need to be here in the evening when you can smell them,” she says. “That's when they're fragrant, they are just unbelievable.”

Iochroma is another unique plant Schwartz found. It is filled with masses of tiny purple trumpet-shaped flowers.

“It is so pretty, I saw it last year and they were sold out. It's beautiful. It was only supposed to be 2 feet tall; they lied,” she says with a laugh. “I don't know what to do with it.”

As the afternoon sun reveals the texture of the elephant ears leaves and makes the brugmansia flowers shine, she reflects on what this container garden means to her.

“It's just so serene. This is my space. It's relaxing and very nice. This is just way I like it, all my little jungle plants.”

Where's Doug?

Tribune-Review and Everybody Gardens home and garden editor will appear Oct. 14 at Penn Hills Lawn and Garden as part of their Fallfest. He's presenting “Planting for the Birds and Keeping Them Happy all Winter” at 11 a.m. He's raffling off of lots of Cole's Wild Bird Seed, too.

Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@535mediallc.com. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com .

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