Dazzling Foliage

Enjoy this easy-to-grow surprise now and in every season.
Steve Bender

For a croton, subtlety is not a virtue. The gaudiest foliage plant in the world, it's a Carmen Miranda with leaves and commands the garden's limelight through sheer pomp and spectacle. Although it originates in a land without autumn, its extravagant costume of yellow, orange, and red exhibits the season's signature colors.

Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, the croton (Codiaeum variegatum) is standard fare in Tropical South gardens, where it can grow into an evergreen shrub 6 feet tall and wide or larger. Elsewhere, it makes a phenomenal potted plant, either outdoors from spring to fall on a porch, deck, or patio or indoors year-round as a houseplant.

The croton offers a dizzying array of leaf colors, shapes, and sizes. The most common variety is called pictum. Its magnolia-shaped leaves emerge yellow and green and then turn salmon, orange, and red as they age. Other types add colors of pink, purple, bronze, and nearly black to the mix with leaves that are oaklike, finger-like, spider-like, twisted, puckered, or spiraled.

 

The Name Game

So, besides pictum, what are the names of all the cool types shown here? I don't know, and there are two reasons why. First, roughly a zillion different crotons exist out there, and even croton breeders and collectors have trouble keeping the names straight. Second, unless you live close to a croton specialist, you will undoubtedly be offered "the croton assortment," a compilation of many different hybrids, none of which come with name tags. My advice: Pick out the one you like, name it after your third cousin, Dweezil, and be happy.

 

Growing Tips

Crotons, whether grown indoors or outdoors, prefer bright light. They do fine in light shade, but sun really brings out the colors. Give them fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Feed them according to label directions with a slow-release granular fertilizer that works for several months. If your plants become sparse at the bottom, cut them back from the top to spur new growth. Keep the milky sap off of your skin, though, as it can be irritating. Don't expose these plants to freezing weather unless you're a really spiteful person.

Spider mites are the bane of crotons grown indoors. Look for tiny webs strung between the leaves and stems or tiny dots moving on the undersides of the leaves. Control mites by thoroughly spraying the leaves (especially the undersides) with soapy water or horticultural oil. Regular misting to humidify the air around the foliage also deters the little fiends. A final word: A croton and a crouton are two different things. Don't serve the first one in salads.


"Dazzling Foliage" is from the October 2007 issue of Southern Living.