My first thought was, is this for real? If I hadn’t seen it growing in the conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens, I’d have thought someone had been playing with Photoshop. I wondered what kind of plant could have leaves that are green, red, black, purple, orange, pink, yellow, and creamy white—all at the same time, and in crazy combinations!
My next thought was, can I have one?
Yes, the plant I had seen was a croton (Codiaeum variegatum), and it’s quite real. I’ve now seen them thriving in other indoor tropical gardens here in Colorado and around the country, plus in outdoor gardens in places like Puerto Rico and Singapore. Like other unique and memorable plants and animals, they’re native to Australia—and Indonesia, Malaysia, and various islands of the western Pacific.
Crotons are in the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, the same family as Poinsettias. And like many of its relatives (but not Poinsettias), most parts of the plant are poisonous.
And yes, they’re popular houseplants, and I can easily find one for sale online, or at any garden center that carries indoor plants. There are several hundred different cultivars to choose from, with varying leave shapes, patterns, and colors. At least one, ‘Majesticum,’ has branches that hang down, an interesting variation.
Getting started isn’t the challenge. The question is, can my home provide the ideal conditions for it to thrive?
Probably the most important consideration when growing crotons is light. In the wild, crotons are found in open forests where they get plenty of sun. At home, find a bright spot where they can get enough light to maintain those bright colors. If the colors start to fade, the location is too dark. In less than ideal situations, choose a cultivar with more subdued foliage, as their light requirements are lower.
Once you decide on a spot, try not to move the plant around. Crotons are one of those finicky species that drop their leaves if annoyed, and newly purchased plants often do just that. With normal care, the leaves should soon grow back. In the meantime, remember to go light on the irrigation while the leaves are missing.
Normally, keep the soil damp but never soggy. Water until the excess flows from the drain hole, then wait until the top inch or two of potting mix is dry before watering again. I prefer to heft the pot—one that needs water will weigh noticeably less.
Crotons are tropical plants, and will also lose their leaves if they get chilled. Growers advise us to keep them above 60° F, preferably warmer. I was sad to discover this fact, as it means that they wouldn’t like our house after all—we let it get pretty cool on winter nights. And while it’s a good idea to gradually move them outside for the summer, check your minimum temperatures first. Our summer nights are often in the 50s.
Most potting mixes contain a time-release fertilizer, but after it’s used up, you’ll have to add your own. Avoid feeding while the plants are partially dormant, in fall and winter. Then, once growth resumes in spring, feed at half the recommendation on the label. When in doubt, under-fertilizer, as too much fertilizer can burn leaves and cause them to curl.
While they can be attacked by many common houseplant insects, including scale and mealy bugs (my nemesis!), the most common problem is spider mites. Low humidity makes the plants even more susceptible. Most common insecticides don’t kill mites (which are arachnids, not insects), but if you see their minute webbing among the leaves, try frequent misting to discourage them.
With our thermostat turned down at night, and our dry climate, it looks like I’ll have to enjoy my crotons away from home. But if you have the space and the proper conditions to grow them, crotons make impressive houseplants. The only element missing is showy flowers—crotons do bloom, but the flowers are small and nothing special; most people remove them. But that’s not really a problem. When you’ve got foliage like this, who needs flowers?