Croton, or codiaeum variegatum pictum, owes its widespread popularity to the fact that it is a spectacularly-colored tropical plant that is easy to maintain. Residents of warm climates, such as South Florida, can grow croton outdoors as an ornamental planting; in less temperate areas it's prized as a houseplant that can brighten any decor. With a little care and attention to your croton, you can keep it bright and colorful for many years.
Crotons were used in Miami Beach in the 1930's and 1940s as a bold decorating accent in swanky hotel lobbies. Croton is unique in that its leaves can be rooted; large numbers of these were placed on tables as centerpieces and arrangements. When allowed to remain on the plant, the broad, leathery leaves grow to 10 inches long at maturity. They start out green, but tend to turn a buttery golden yellow; older leaves on the same plant can be veined with scarlet as well, or even appear primarily ruby-red, orange, or pink. Crotons are really small shrubs, and can reach a height of 6 feet outdoors. If your croton is an indoor plant, it will probably top out at 3 feet.
Full, bright light, cool--but not cold--temperatures and adequate humidity are the keys to keeping crotons healthy. Window seats and sun rooms make ideal locations for these light-loving plants. Make sure your croton gets the right amount of water by watering when the top inch of soil in an 8-inch pot is dry to the touch. With larger plants, allow the top 3 inches to become dry. Duplicate the warm rain of a tropical jungle by using lukewarm water for watering and misting. Avoid leaf drop, and possible plant damage, by keeping the plant out of drafts and cold, but avoid overheating it as well. To stimulate color production, use a balanced fertilizer every two weeks, except for the months of October through February, when you should give your croton a break from feedings. A balanced fertilizer simply means the ratio of nitrogen to phophorus to potassium is equal; balanced 20-20-20 NPK is a good formulation to use for crotons. If your croton is happy enough with the care you give, it may reward you in spring and summer with a show of tiny white blossoms.
Tips and Precautions
If croton leaves are broken or punctured, they may leak a white sap that can stain clothes; it is also a skin irritant for some people. If the sap gets on your skin, rinse it off well. If the croton's leaves remain green into maturity, it's getting insufficient light. You might be better off with one of the new croton varieties specially developed to survive in low light.