Splashy Southerner loves Northern summers The caladium's leaves are its glory.

Posted: September 19, 2008

Even at 80, Don Kaskey is a tireless globetrotter, and he's got the stories to prove it. "So I'm in a hotel in Caracas," he'll say, or, "The last time I was in Tobago . . ."

You have to wonder: How can this citizen of the world be content sitting silently in his side yard, in the wilds of Gulph Mills, drinking pink lemonade?

Have a seat. Soon you'll understand.

Kaskey's side yard, which he's nicknamed "Mockingbird Hill," is shady, cool and green. A breeze ripples through the white pines overhead, and we're surrounded - in pots and vases and along a mounded island - by floppy-eared tropical caladiums.

Leaves are the thing with these plants. They come in near-translucent shades of red, white and pink, overlaid with green, and in every conceivable combination of that genetically determined palette. White with green veins, green with pink dots, scarlet red with rosy blotches, solid, mottled, speckled, caladiums bring the beveled-jewel look of stained glass to an otherwise demure little garden.

Actually, this corner of Kaskey's one-acre property has been a garden for only a couple of years. Before that, it was a dumping area where the landscape consisted of ivy, grass clippings, the occasional worn-out TV antenna, and other junk.

"I decided I needed to use this space better," says Kaskey, long retired from his family's proprietary-drug company and his own small catering business. "Little did I know it would turn out to be the best part of my garden."

Caladiums were the key.

Sometimes called the "geraniums of the South," for their popularity there, caladiums aren't always a natural choice for folks up North. They have that jungle look that hot-weather plants have, scaring many cold-weather gardeners away.

True, caladiums can't tolerate a chill in the air, let alone frost. But they'll thrive here all summer long.

You can plant caladiums en masse or place them individually among other plants in a bed.

"They're a great summer bedding plant when you just can't bear to put in more impatiens," says Jessica Story, head grower at Meadowbrook Farm, the plant nursery and public garden in Abington.

Caladiums bring a lavish flair to containers, pots and hanging baskets. They're positively electric with coleus. And with their giant, arrowhead-shaped foliage, they provide a dramatic backdrop for evergreens and perennials of all sorts, even in the hottest, driest of times.

Imagine the possibilities.

Story does. She sees an eye-catching marriage of caladiums and ferns.

"There's a nice texture difference with the big, heavy, coarse, colorful leaves and the finer, lighter, delicate fern," she says.

Caladiums are native to South America and the West Indies and have been cultivated in Europe for three centuries. A big turning point in their popularity in the United States occurred at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, where more than 400 varieties were on display.

(They're commonly called "elephant ears" or some version of it, although that's a more appropriate label for the caladium's kissin' cousin, the colacasia. The latter is greener, with bigger leaves that look so much like an elephant's you'll want to give them a scratch.)

Caladium breeding in this country began in Florida in the early 1900s, and in 1976, the University of Florida got into the act big time.

Zhanao Deng, a caladium breeder at the school's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, says the trend now is toward ever more combinations of red, white and pink, greater disease resistance, and tolerance of sun and stress.

Though caladiums are made for the shade - not deep, but partial shade - Deng says many also do OK in sun.

"Most caladiums can handle sun, actually, not just the new ones," he says. "Here in my breeding program, I grow them in full sun all the time."

But to keep those watermelon reds and bubble-gum pinks bright and crisp, partial shade is probably a better idea, Deng adds.

That describes Kaskey's "Mockingbird Hill" to a T. Here, he sits on a glider, drinking his lemonade and sharing a huge bowl of grapes and peaches with a visitor, while sun and shade play tag in the shadows.

Often, you'll find him out here for five, six hours a day, reading a travel or food magazine, cooking being another favorite pasttime, along with cars, movies, art and ceramics. His Tibetan terrier, Tirone, is frequently at his side, lording it over Frick and Frack, the gray Persian cats - they're housebound.

A self-taught gardener, Kaskey discovered caladiums in Ventnor, where his family had a summer home for 30 years. Beachfront neighbors filled their window boxes with them, and though he didn't care for the window boxes, Kaskey loved the look.

So he planted caladiums for his mother in Ventnor, in the sun, with success. Last year, when he was redoing the side yard in Gulph Mills, he planted about 100 caladium tubers to the exclusion of all else.

Here's why: "They're big and bold. They grow in shade and sun. They're versatile and easy. There are lots of varieties and colors, and no two patterns are alike." Best of all, they're "big and bold and splashy."

This year, Kaskey added azalea, hydrangea, hosta, coleus, clematis, perennial begonia, phlox and impatiens to his caladium patch. "I like a lot of color, and I like things to keep blooming," he says.

As we chat, it's hard not to notice the neighbor's lawn across the way. How parched and unadorned it looks on this blast furnace of a summer day.

Somehow, we're only slightly damp with humidity. Could be the lemonade. Then again, just sitting among these stained-glass-like caladiums brings on the coolness of a dark church.

"Delightful," Kaskey says, as we raise our glasses.

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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Virginia A. Smith blogs at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/gardening

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