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CentralFloridaPalms.com Roots article December 2003. Previously published in Florida Gardening Magazine (www.floridagardening.com)

 

The Colorful Croton

Vast varieties of plant-life are available to the modern gardener. Exquisite species of flowering plants and trees provide endless selections. One such plant is the Codiaeum variegatum, or commonly known as the Croton. If you are seeking to add drama and beauty to your garden, the croton is a perfect fit. Its myriad of colors and shapes provide almost unlimited possibilities with relatively little effort.

The name Croton is actually a misnomer or a "Continuation of an error" according to A Codiaeum Encyclopedia-Crotons Of The World by Dr. B. F. Brown. In the late 1700's, plant collectors mistakenly labeled the plant in question a “Croton”, a name that was already reserved for another plant. Through the years of horticulture trade however, the name stuck.

The Croton is classified as an Old World tropical evergreen shrub, tracing its origins to Southeast Asia. The term evergreen is also somewhat a misnomer, as the croton in reality possesses a kaleidoscope of colors. Red, yellow, orange, purple, and green are some of the possible colors. A single plant may have many different colors in its individual leaves, making it appear psychedelic and surreal. In addition to their color diversity, Crotons also exhibit a multitude of intriguing leaf forms. Oak, corkscrew, broad and narrow leafs are some of forms you can find. The very interesting interrupted leaf is unique as well, where the leaf seems to be sprouting a smaller leaf on its end.

The Croton’s diversity can be attributed to its genetic instability. While it started out as a solid green-leafed plant, with nature's delicate touch and man's hybridization efforts, it now offers the collector numerous forms and shapes. The croton is truly a fascinating specimen.

As a true tropical shrub, the croton can only tolerate mild winters with no freezes when planted outside and is thus confined to the Southern half of the Florida peninsula. Crotons can be planted further North where freezes occur, but care and protection must be offered when freezing weather is expected. They make excellent container plants however, and many gardeners prefer to keep them in pots that can be easily moved into a garage or greenhouse during a freeze.

Ideally, the Croton likes constant humidity and moisture, but it is a relatively hearty shrub that can survive mild droughts and cooler temperatures. Although Crotons respond to this stress by shedding their leaves, making them temporarily unsightly, they typically bounce back when warmth and water return.

Crotons are one of the easiest plants to propagate with cuttings. During the warm months make a clean cut on a stem at least a pencil-width thick, remove about 50 percent of the bottom leaves and let the bottom stem soak in a bucket of clean water in the shade. Let it soak for a two or three days, changing the water daily, and then use a pair of pliers to remove an inch-wide strip of outer bark all the way around the stem near the bottom. Leaving a little bark on the bottom will help support the stem when stuck in the rooting medium, but is not necessary. Push the stem into clean sand or any potting soil mix, water it daily and keep it in shade and high humidity. The cutting should develop roots and flush out new leaves in about a month's time. Although most varieties root easily with cuttings, my own experience has been that I have about a 90 percent success rate. Air layering is another sure-fire way to propagate crotons.

At one time, there was a great push for the hybridization of Crotons, resulting in the multitude of varieties that currently exist. In fact, there was tremendous competition between those who wanted to outdo the others in creating ideal or unique Croton varieties through crossbreeding and selection. There remains a great deal of interest in studying and appreciating these plants, and the creation of organizations like the Croton Society (www.crotons.org ) attests to this fact.

For the landscape, Crotons can by used as accent, hedge, or specimen plantings. They give a monochrome green landscape year-round eye catching color, and are perfect to fill in the nooks and crannies of your landscape. Although many people believe that the Croton needs full sun to obtain its most intense colors, it actually does best in partial shade. Crotons also work well under oaks and next to palm trees.

Although crotons also make for dramatic formal hedges, it is best to use all the same variety in them, as there are different growth rates between varieties. Pruning can become quite a chore otherwise, to keep the hedge’s formal shape. If you like more of an informal look however, mix and match the different leaf types and colors and your hedge will be exotic and impressive. I might also suggest using a light color Croton in front of dark green foliage of other plants for eye-catching appeal.

The croton is relatively slow growing and does not require much fertilizer. Fertilizing with a low nitrogen grade fertilizer will encourage the plants to grow however. Fertilizing in the early spring and again during the summer rainy season is usually all that is needed. Use fertilizer sparingly however, because too much nitrogen can burn the Croton’s roots. I recommend using composted cow manure because it can be used liberally around the Croton’s base. A thick layer of mulch will also help conserve moisture, provide nutrients and help keep weeds away. Crushed oak leaves make ideal mulch if available. Regardless of the type of mulch you use, it is important to keep it at least 6 inches away from the Croton’s trunk.

The croton can survive on Florida's normal rain patterns, but if there is an extended drought, irrigation is recommended. The croton will tell you when it needs water by drooping its leaves. If the leaves are not drooping, then watering is unnecessary. Over watering will encourage root rot and fungi to develop.

Grown as a container plant, Crotons require little care. A weekly misting and watering along with semi-monthly light fertilization is all that is needed. Growing Crotons in containers allows you to move the Croton to different areas of the yard or patio wherever color is desired. They are unfortunately not good long-term indoor plants however. The air conditioned or heated house does not supply the needed humidity. Moving Crotons indoors should only be a short-term solution to prevent damage from a harsh winter, as it is more effective than covering them outside.

Aphids, spider mites, and scale will sometimes attack the Croton, but a simple stream of water can be used to wash them off. Crotons very rarely need pesticides to control pests. Move the plant to a better location and if necessary, use a safe horticulture soap. A healthy plant that is grown in ideal conditions can defend itself from almost any pest.

In conclusion, the easy to care for Croton, with its exotic and colorful appeal should be in everyone’s garden collection.

David Reid
Damy5@juno.com

Ti and Croton Photo Album hyperlink

Contacts:
The Croton Society Inc.
P.O. Box 24892
Tampa, Fla 33623-4892 USA
E-mail: CROTON1@Tampabay.rr.com
Phone: (813) 968-9689
www.crotons.org www.crotons.org


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