More Perennials: Ligularia, elephant ears, golden ray (Ligularia spp.)

Photo courtesy Sara Williams. Ligularia stencephala is pictured.

Sara Williams, Saskatchewan Perennial Society

Few perennials can compete with ligularia for its presence, size and sheer visual impact. They’re large without being invasive or unruly. They are also very hardy and long-lived. Native to China and Japan where they are found in tall grass meadows, often by mountain streams, their major requirement is even moisture. They were introduced to British gardens by the turn of the last century. The common name, elephant ears, is a reference to the size and shape of the leaves. The genus name is derived from the Latin word ligula, a strap, and describes the strap-like ray florets of the flower, while dentata means toothed and refers to the leaf margins.

Varying in height from 1-2 m (3-6 ft), ligularia form neat clumps of foliage overtopped by the flower spikes. The large, attractive leaves are round, heart or kidney shaped and appear alternately on the erect, stout stems. The foliage and stems vary from green to darkest purple. The yellow to orange, daisy-like flowers are formed in spikes well above the foliage and appear in July and August.

As Allan Armitage, renowned author and horticulturist, so aptly wrote, “Grow [them] in cool, moist conditions or not at all. I wouldn’t plant any ligularia if I didn’t have a wet space for it.” They demand a deep soil in partial shade that is well amended with organic matter and is kept evenly moist. They are happiest in boggy conditions and even then the leaves may appear wilted by mid-afternoon (but will have recovered by the following morning). Slugs may be a problem. Ligularia is at home in a shaded border, a bog garden, massed or as specimen plants, or by a streamside. The unimproved species may be increased by seed; the varieties by cuttings or spring division.

Species and varieties:

Ligularia dentata, native to China and Japan and introduced to England in the 1940s, is probably the most common species and its cultivars are what are generally seen in our gardens.

‘Desdemona’ is more compact, branched and heat-tolerant than the species. It has large 9 cm (3.5 in.), golden yellow to orange, daisy-like flowers in July and August on 100 cm (40 in.) mauve-purple stems. Its kidney to heart-shaped green foliage has gorgeous, almost sensuous, purple undersides.

‘Othello’ also has daisy-like, orange flowers with kidney-shaped to round leaves with purple undersides. It is in all ways similar to ‘Desdemona’ but slightly smaller and not as compact. It is 90-120 cm (36-48 in.) high.

‘Midnight Lady’, a recent seed introduction from Germany, is 90-100 cm (36-40 in.) high with large, rounded, purple-black leaves and golden-orange, daisy-like flowers.

Ligularia stenocephala, the narrow headed ligularia, is also native to Japan and China. As the common and species names imply, the flower spikes are narrower. The plant is somewhat taller at 150 cm (5 ft) in height.

‘The Rocket’ was introduced by Alan Bloom of Bressingham Nursery in England. It does indeed resemble a rocket when in bloom with small, light lemon-yellow flowers in wand-like, tapered racemes. The leaves are round to triangular, toothed, mainly basal and alternate on the stem. It is possibly a hybrid of L. stenocephala and L. przewalskii.

‘Little Rocket’ is compact and only 60-90 cm (24-36 in.) in height with orange-yellow flower spikes. It has not been widely tested in northern gardens and should be placed in a protected location.

‘Osiris Cafe Noir’, only 45 cm (18 in.) tall, has foliage that emerges deep purple and matures to olive green. It has not been widely tested in more northern gardens and should be placed in a protected location.

‘Britt Marie Crawford’ is 30-60 cm(1-2 ft), clump forming, with glossy-purple-black foliage. Again, it has not been widely tested in northern gardens and should be placed in a protected location.

Ligularia przewalskii, from northern China, produces 1.2-1.8 m (4-6 ft) spikes of small, clear yellow flowers on nearly black stems. The triangular, dark green leaves are deeply cut.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; ). Check our website ( or Facebook page ( for a list of upcoming gardening events.