Looking like a shrub ablaze, the croton (Codiaeum variegatum) graces tropical landscape borders and cut flower bouquets as well as brightening homes as houseplants. The large oval or lance-shaped leaves remain evergreen in frost-free locales. Hundreds of varieties exist today, providing lots of leaf texture, size and coloration choices.
Native to the brightly lit pockets of rain forests and thickets, all six species of croton hail from southeastern-most Asia from Malaysia to the larger southwest Pacific Islands. The modern croton developed through countless mutations and selections by man for ornamental foliage qualities, leading many botanists to consider the croton a man-derived species with a mottled lineage. Often literature cites the croton as having a garden origin.
The crowning glory of any croton involves both the shape and color patterns on its waxy, thick leaves. Leaf shape ranges from large, tapered ovals to lance-shaped or twisting straps. They may possess lobes. The leaf veins' color starkly contrasts the color of the leaf blade, and newly emerging foliage bears a different color once the leaves mature and are exposed to varying amounts of sunlight. Although overshadowed by the foliage, crotons do flower and set fruit, much to the surprise of gardeners. In the warmth of summer, branch tips bear a long stem lined with tiny star-like yellow to ivory flowers. Pollinated blossoms yield a small, round black fruit.
Grow crotons in a non-alkaline pH soil that is moist and well-draining and rich in organic matter. Water frequently in the growing season's warmth and less so in winter to prevent root rot and premature leaf drop. Some varieties of croton tolerate full sun conditions, more than eight hours of direct sunlight daily. Most look their best if some shading exists in the heat of midday, so about four to six hours of shifting sunlight reaches leaves across the day. The shrubs tolerate light frosts at the expense of dropping leaves, and prolonged subfreezing temperatures kill leaves, stems and roots outright. Grow croton outdoors year round in USDA hardiness zones 9 and warmer, where they grow potentially into shrubs 6 to 12 feet tall.
Hundreds of varieties of croton exist, providing gardeners with a broad array of choice for leaf texture and colors. Common selections include Petra, Mammy, Franklin Roosevelt, Dreadlocks, and Picasso's Paintbrush. Tropical nurseries propagate and offer an increasing selection of croton varieties based on personal taste or unusual coloration or spotting. Often the variety name does not accompany the plant.
The milky sap of crotons, being members of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, causes skin irritation in some people. Wash hands after breaking off a leaf or conducting any shrub pruning and avoid getting the sap in your eyes.