Sunday, October 30, 2011

Crotons....ohhh Crotons...I've got Crotons on my mind....

On this rainy and really wet Saturday I decided to talk a little bit about Crotons, Codiaeum variegatum,an ornamental evergreen tropical shrub.  Crotons are known to have a devout cult following due to their fanciful colors, various leaf shapes, unique free form growing habit & super easy to grow.  From the 1950's through to the 1970's, crotons were widely used throughout Florida as a major landscape plant.  Then the housing styles started to change from classic brick & mortar simple style ranch homes to a new hipper look with stucco & wood in the 80's & 90's.

Our Miami house 1971
With that, the landscapes also changed from the old stand-by's like croton's, gardenia's, dracena, natal plum, ixora's, etc. to new tropical plants imported from other countries.  The landscapes became more colorful & textural by layering different tropical specimens like gingers, alocasia, crinum lilies, palms, etc.  So the poor little croton lost is luster and faded to the background.  In the older neighborhoods you can still see some crotons over 50 years old which were planted at the time the houses were built.  Growing up here in South Florida I remember our neighborhoods filled with all different types of huge old school varieties of crotons.  Unfortunately Hurricane Andrew destroyed quite a few of them.  Now the croton is back and badder than ever with over four hundred different cultivar's.  So if you are not familiar with them you are bound to fall in love.  I'm sure you have seen them everywhere just never realized it.  Grab a cup o'joe or glass of wine, relax and let's get started cause this may be a long one, lol.

Croton Dhyana hybrid from Siam Croton
A tiny bit of history about this gem of a plant....a native to India, Malaysia & South Pacific Islands, so they like heat & humidity.  Crotons were first introduced into North America by the Henry A Dreer Nursery around 1870 in Philadelphia, PA. as a new hothouse plant for the collections of Victorian gardeners.  Quickly became popularized and made its way to South Florida as a new unique & colorful landscape plant of the 50's & 60's.  Now with that bit of trivia out of the way, on to the good stuff, lol.

Hmmmm where to start...well let's start with the basics.  Crotons love hot & humid weather but also like to be well watered in good draining soil (no mucky ground as they will get root rot very easily).  Though I do have to say I have heard this plant be called drought tolerant. To quote my Dad, "let me say this about that"...once crotons are established they can be resistant to periods of dry spells.  If the soil is extremely dry and hot like in areas of sugar sand (where I live) the plant will stress out, drop their leaves as a survival measure & if the plant has multiple trunks a few may die back to save the whole plant (like mine did).  Crotons are much better at being drought tolerant in partial sun rather than in full sun (plants in full sun have to be extraordinarily tough here in South Florida to survive this kind of ecosystem).  Now conversely, crotons are cold tolerant for short spells but cannot survive long hard freezes.  They either need to be brought inside or put in a greenhouse during the colder months.  Though don't worry too much about crotons because they are extremely resilient & hardy plants that survive most types of dramatic weather conditions.
Croton Dignity hybrid from Siam Croton
Croton Harmonious hybrid from Siam Croton
To plant in full sun or not to plant in full sun...that is the question, lol.  What makes crotons attributes very unique is their coloring, spots, dapples, swirls, curls, twists & leaf shapes.  How much & how little sunlight they get each day will affect all of the above.  Some varieties do very well in full sun like Batik, Bravo, Mammy, Petra & Red Tortilla while others prefer part sun/part shade like Fishbone, Mrs. Iceton, Nirvana, Polychrome & Zulu.  The older more established plants will do very well in full sun.  Though when in doubt plant them, especially when they are young, in part sun/part shade since that is their ideal growing conditions & produce the best colors.
Croton Nirvana from Siam Croton
Croton CRT007 hybrid from Siam Croton

This plant is not picky about soil requirements and can adapt quickly to a variety of soil types & ph's.  Though ideally you always want to have good organic rich soil to plant your plants in.  Also, it's a good idea to fertilize crotons at least twice a year (for crotons early & late Spring) along with the rest of your plants to help your crotons live up to their potential, lol.  Having a healthy plant will help keep them pest free.
Crotons in a Davie, FL. landscape 

Cordylines, Crotons & variegated Pittosporum
in a South Florida landscape
Crotons have a reputation to live up to with their endless variety of colors, shapes & sizes.  By nature these genetic features are extremely unpredictable & can vary from plant to plant but it's also what makes crotons so special.  These mutations allow for hybridizer's to create some really awesome varieties.  With that said crotons are first grouped by their leaf types: broad, hastate, linear & orbicular are the main types.  From that, are variations like croton dhyana (see pic above), a "linear leaf that spirals with spots & colors of red, yellow, green and black".  See how that works?  Ok, lets do this again...start with a basic leaf shape, lets say broad base, add a leaf shape variation like a ruffled edge then throw in yellow, pink & orange spots on a green, red & black leaf, hence croton pie crust.  See, easy right?!?  LOL ;)  Good thing the technical stuff is left to the professionals.  Though the good thing is once you find a croton you like, it can be propagated easily through cuttings.  Which means you can take either cut a leaf or a branch off the mother plant, put in water and/or moist organic rich soil until it grows roots, then it can be re-potted and/or transplanted into the ground.  A great way to share your croton collection with friends, family & neighbors.
Croton Pie Crust
Croton Pie Crust
Another wonderful thing about crotons is they are widely available, if I may be so bold to say, at all South Florida nurseries.  Most gardening centers and some nurseries will just carry the standard old school American varieties like Mammey, Petra, Curly Boy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Batik, Gold Dust, Picasso's Paintbrush,  Mrs. Iceton, Congo & Turkeyfoot/Oak Leaf.  Though if you are looking for something a bit more exotic (something totally different from your neighbor, lol) then check out some of the new hybrids coming out of Thailand.  WOWZER!!! Here are a few South Florida nurseries & growers you can purchase some healthy beautiful crotons.  Leserra's Nursery in Deerfield Beach, Fl.  NuTurf Garden Center in Pompano Beach, Fl.  Living Color Nursery in Davie, Fl.  Gardino Nursery in Delray Beach, Fl.  Peter's Croton Nursery in Vero Beach, Fl.  Siam Croton from Thailand is always on the cutting edge in creating some outstanding hybrids.  A few great resources to peruse during your down time are: Croton Mania with his incredible registry of the different cultivars; the Croton Society located in Tampa, Fl;  Peters Croton Nursery has an very informative website along with an impressive list of available plants to purchase; and of course our beloved University of Florida IFAS extension is a great website resource for all Florida gardners.
Croton Prajna
Croton CRT #43
Growing up in South Florida I saw crotons every where so I never really gave them a second thought.  Once I became a homeowner with actual land I could plant cool stuff on, crotons became a new passion for me.  Currently I have dwarf Curly Boy, Batik, Picasso's Paintbrush, dwarf Pictum Spot, Red Spot and Mammey.  After writing this blog episode, I now have another wish list of some crazy wild new crotons to add to my landscape (and our client's landscapes also), hee hee.  Here are a few pictures of my current crotons in the yard.
Croton Pictum Spot dwarf version
with necklace pod on left, biscayne prickly
ash on right & acalypha (copperleaf) in back
Close up of the croton pictum spot dwarf
Isn't it gorgeous!?!  Such a beautiful accent with the
yellow dappled green leaves which punctuates the
landscape saying "hey, look at me!" This croton is about 5-6 feet high & that's about as high as it will get.

Croton Red Spot is super gorgeous as a
stand alone accent in the landscape.  Long
linear leaves with spots all over them. To
the right is my Bay Rum tree.
Croton Red Spot close up
The newer leaves are the green & yellow ones,
which will then turn into the red, pink & a little
dark blood red or black.  Looks like fireworks in
the sky on 4th of July  Spectacular! ;)

Croton Mammey
Just ignore the weeds, lol, I have our
front yard under another renovation. 
Croton Mammey close up
Linear elongated leaves with slight twists
towards the ends. Lots of dark reds, greens,
& black with bright yellows & greens
popping out to brighten the plant.

Croton Curly Boy
This little one is just now showing its true
colors, coming back from a stressful
transplant during a month that ended up being
a summer of drought.  Look at it go! :)
Not sure what this little croton is but it's the plant I
was referring to earlier. This section of yard is a type of silicone sugar sand.  It gets super hot & dry especially in a drought summer.  So this croton did survive but not without loosing a few stalks & lots of leaves.  Give it another couple of seasons & will maybe figure out what it is...unless some croton aficionado knows, lol.

Croton Moth
Croton Exotica

Croton Thomas Edison
Croton Fishbone

Croton Cranberry
Croton Golded Glow
So there you have it ladies & gentlemen, crotons 101 a la Sheri B stylie!  Hope I am able to spread some color, texture & fun into your heart and of course your landscape.  Get out there & get dirty! :)


  1. I love crotons too, the quintessential tropical garden plant. One that makes you think of all the truly tropical paradises around the world where every garden great or small has a couple or more of these in the front garden. Even if nothing else but a mango tree and a papaya or two there will be a colourful croton, probably handed across the fence as a cutting, or taken from great aunties place etc. Very few nurseries bother to sell them there.

    I've just come back from Sri Lanka loaded with fabulous croton cuttings many I've never before seen in collections outside of Sri Lanka, and even more from Sri Lanka that have I notice been given interesting and often strange names in the West. Sold as "Pie crust" and "Tomas Edison", "Iceton", "Zulu" etc. They don't name their crotons in Sri Lanka but many many are these same familiar plants we know, and many are also the rare named cultivars we seek. How they made that great journey Im not sure but it seems they did in their hundreds at some point.

    I met lots of people collecting my cuttings, lots of interesting, wonderful people proud and happy to offer me a top cutting of their family heirlooms. Some were also just straight puzzled at my enthusiasm and were only too happy to go and get the panga knife and remove an entire branch for me, asking me incredulously what I planned to do with it. As common as golden coconut palms. Standing in the sun showering their world with magnificent colour year in year out, almost everyone one unique.

    One such cutting I collected growing at a gate within three meters of the sea in the full sun and sea spray had glorious shiny entire simple broad leaves a foot and a half long and almost as wide, black and intense red "fish bone" pattern almost from start, growing old to black and big bold blood red marbled spots like a larva lamp about to explode. I battled to fit the branch into the car and protested most vigourously when it was cut but to no avail. It seemed the bigger they could make it the happier and prouder they became.

    Fantastic. I cant see a crotons these days without smelling the Indian ocean, tropical fruits and happy smiling delighted faces, and of course my garden has never looked better. It was truly wonderful to be in the land where the croton is both native and king. Like discovering the source of the Nile at last, I was wild with excitement. It just never occurred to me before I left home so the surprise was all the more.

    1. Hello River,

      First let me say thank you for such a wonderfully illustrated story of your travels! I read through it three times. I can only wish that one day I could visit Sri Lanka and the surrounding areas. What an amazing country with incredible people. Though through your story I can just picture myself traveling along the sides roads with the sea breeze blowing in. You are quite the lucky collector! Would love to see your croton collection, especially the fish bone patterned one. A shame you live so far or I would suggest we trade some of our unique gem's in our collections, lol. Looking forward to hearing more of your adventure.

      Best wishes & Happy Gardening,

    2. Thanks Sheri! It was a wonderful trip. I too hope you can get there, you will have a brilliant time. And it's just as you say as you become instantly intune with your surroundings, the people, landscape. You have that thing in common suddenly. Right at home, a mission, an unexpected and delightful project.

      One time I was head deep in a big bushy croton (lovely fountains of bright green elegantly drooping leaves, pink yellow petioles and a lightening shaped yellow centres that age to a beautiful mellow orange then golden burnt sienna) and came face to face with a local hiding in there looking back at me intensely. It was a long twig thin snake with huge liquid green eyes like a cat, sharp pointed nose and emerald and black stripe running down its sides. I very very carefully retracted my head and arm. Momentarily left breathless in awe and wonder I still decided to proceed and gingerly took an outside cutting and thanked the snake most kindly for not biting me for my clumsy intrusion.

      Im quite surprised at the success I've had with the cuttings to be honest especially the very big leaf ones. Im not sure if my spontaneous way is the correct way to collect and store croton cuttings but it worked for me and for a three week period before I got home and was able to plant them.

      What I did was scour every small shop and supermarket until I found what appeared to be the only shop in Sri Lanka, (one of the only Arpico Super Centres in the area) selling Zip-lock bags and jumbo sized ones too. So armed with a couple of rolls of these and bottled water whenever I took a cutting I put it straight into one of the bags, poured a little water in it, blew it up and closed the zip. If the leaves were on the giant size I trimmed them in half.

      I try never leave home without my neat sharp little Thai horticultural scissors, a travel necessity. I was certainly over the moon that I didn't forget to pack them this time.

      So every time we arrived at a hotel, mostly beach destination the boot would open and out would tumble dozens of balloons each with a colourful croton inside. They take up a lot of space but we had a station wagon which was ideal. All I did was keep them upside so that the stem was in a little water just an inch and importantly out of any direct sun. When not travelling in the shade outside so they kept warm. Half way through the trip I changed the water which took some time and lung power but other than that they travelled without fuss. I only lost one, a yellow slightly cork screw "Indian headdress" (luckily I took two of those), it got a bit of sun in the car and completely defoliated my to my horror.

      For the flight and packing I deflated by more than half or they would never have fitted in the luggage. Luckily my better half decided it was time to buy a new suitcase or I doubt they would've fitted at all!

      Yes trading is the way to go. However here in Bonkers gardening is very much in the doldrums so I have to rely on travel to get interesting plants. Thailand is a treasure trove too not only for crotons of course but I seldom come home without at least one interesting croton. Mostly these have been chance seedlings or spontaneous mutations someone decides to take to the plant market as its so unusual or attractive, but also the weird and wonderful ones they produce through breeding like the ones you have shown above, they all thrive.

      I will have to go back to Sri Lanka as just as we were leaving the coast for Colombo all packed (rather tightly) I spotted a yellow "Mona Lisa" growing outside someones locked up gates. Of course we screetched to a halt, did a quick U-turn while narrowly missing a bus traveling on the wrong side of the road. There it was in all its glory. Unfortunately there was no one home, sigh and we couldn't wait or go back. Always a next time!

      Thanks for a wonderful blog entry. I was instantly transported and moved to respond (: