Croton Care: How To Grow The Colorful Codiaeum Plant

Croton plants produce intense colors. There are many croton varieties with an array of many leaf shapes and they make excellent additions to a patio, deck or terrace as planted or as potted specimens. Indoors crotons need lots of light to keep their color.

Indoors the croton need lots of light to keep their color.

No matter what your circumstance, the “variegated laurel” can add color to your life. The brightly colored, thick, shiny, leathery leaves are ornamental and festive.

the right croton plant care produces leaves of colorful foliage

While these cheery plants do flower, the small blooms are insignificant in comparison to the foliage color they provide.

The Codiaeum variegatum (aka: croton or Variegated Laurel) is the most popular member of a larger genus. It makes a superb houseplant and is available in many decorative varieties.

In this article, we will discuss the care and cultivation of this fascinating plant both in the home and in the landscape.

Croton Plant Quick Growing Guide:

Family: Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family
Origin: The croton is native to areas of Malaysia, Indonesia, northern Australia, and the Caribbean.
Common Names: Croton, Variegated Laurel

Uses: Grown as a houseplant, a container garden plant or used in the landscape in temperate climates. In cooler climates, many gardeners plant it as an annual.

Height: Plants grow anywhere between 2 – 10 feet tall, depending on climate, soil conditions, and care. They typically stay in a mid-range of 2 – 4 feet.

USDA Hardiness Zones: Cold hardy to zones 10 and 11.

Flowers: Small male and female flowers may be present on the same bush.
Foliage: The leaves of this plant are the calling card. Large, leathery and showy in solid colors or splashy combinations of green, white, purple, pink, crimson, bright red, orange and yellow. The large leaves (4-8 inches long) come in several different shapes and may be lobe or lance-shaped, oval or linear depending upon plant type.

Miscellaneous: The Croton is often called the world’s most colorful shrub. Codiaeum variegatum is related to poinsettias and copper plants.

The Croton and Its Cousins May Be Both Lovely and Deadly

Codiaeum variegatum is a member of the family Euphorbiaceae and considered a toxic plant. Nonetheless, this attractive shrub has made its way into the hearts of horticulturists because it is such an impressive small potted plant, large container plant and addition to a tropical landscape.

It is worth noting that there is another plant called the “true croton” (Croton tiglium) once considered a medicinal plant. This is a small tree, native to Southeast Asia. It is a purging croton, and it produces seeds used to make croton oil.

The oil is a quite poisonous viscous liquid once used medicinally as a purgative in both veterinary and human medicine, but it is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. [source]

Are House and Landscape Croton Plants the Same as “True Crotons”?

The croton plants used as ornamental shrubs and houseplants are in the same family as “true crotons,” but they are different species and there are many croton species.

The plants we will discuss in this article come from the Old World Tropics. The (Codiaeum variegatum) varieties most commonly grown by fanciers hail from the Malay Peninsula and the Pacific Islands. These are the plants traditionally so popular in the landscape in south Florida.

In the past quarter of a century, they have gained popularity as houseplants, container plants, and annuals in less temperate settings. Some of the original varieties did not do well when moved from outdoors to indoors. Shock caused them to exhibit leaf drop.

For this reason, before the 1970s these plants were mostly used as decorative additions to floral arrangements in public settings such as hotels. They were also used as outdoor landscaping plants in tropical areas, such as Florida.

Today, Crotons are often used to bring a colorful, festive air to theme parks. Out in the open, in warm, bright settings such as Legoland and Disney World, these lovely plants truly thrive.

In the last 30 years, new varieties have been developed in Europe. As these hardy cultivars have become available in the US, plant fanciers in all 50 states have become familiar with these colorful, fascinating plants.

Newer varieties, such as Petra, Norma and Mammy are better able to withstand environmental changes. They are also better able to produce brightly colored leaves, even in lower light settings.

croton-legoland-01-092016

Large potted Croton used for color at Legoland theme park – Winter Haven, Florida Sept 2016

Common Uses For The Croton Plant Include:

  • Plant in combination with the Hawaiian ti plant (Cordyline), hibiscus or elephant ear to create a lovely tropical garden.
  • In colder climates, keep the croton indoors as a houseplant in a sunny east or west facing window.
  • Use as an under-story for palm trees or other trees that provide very little shade.
  • Use as container plants or planted in the ground for color around the terrace, deck, patio or poolside.
  • Kept as specimen plants in planters or containers and brought indoors in winter.
  • Use small and medium varieties as foundation plants.
  • Mass all one color for a beautiful, mid-height hedge.
  • Use taller varieties to grow a festive privacy screen.
  • Create a colorful border and/or line your fence, driveway or path.
  • Flank the entry to your garage or your property.
  • Add colorful privacy in front of low windows.
  • Plant individual specimens as accent plants.
  • Use smaller varieties as ground cover.

Attractive Croton Varieties: Colorful Leaves, Sizes and Shapes

Eye-catching croton all feature attractive, colorful leaves in many different sizes and shapes, ranging from wide, flat leaves to narrow, swirled, colorful ribbons.

The festive nature of the appearance of these plants is reflected in the whimsical names, such as Sloppy Painter and Dreadlocks. Of course, there are also some more stately Codiaeum variegatum, such as:

  • Ronald Reagan
  • Eleanor Roosevelt

Most types of Codiaeum variegatum stay around three feet high and can easily find use as potted or container plants. Others, such as

  • Stoplight
  • Red Bravo
  • Corkscrew
  • Gold Dust

… and the celebrated Sloppy Painter may get as tall as five feet. [source]

Here are some of the most popular and best-performing croton varieties:

Gold Dust Croton – bright green, waxy, oval-shaped leaves with brilliant yellow splatters. This variety is often used as a landscape shrub in temperate areas. It also makes a lovely houseplant.

Mammy Croton – One of the smallest and most popular varieties usually only attains a height of about two-and-a-half feet. This perky little number sports bright, splashy green, yellow and red twisted, streamer-like leaves.

If grown outdoors in bright light, the colors are dazzling. Kept as an indoor plant, the leaves are more subdued shades of green, purple and red.

Croton Mammy growing outdoors - Palm Coast, Florida Nov, 2017

Croton Mammy growing outdoors – Palm Coast, Florida Nov, 2017

Red Iceton has oval leaves with pointed tips. One the interesting items about this plant – the leaves change color. When they first emerge, they are yellow. As they mature, they turn pink and red.

Magnificent lives up to its name by putting on a fabulous show of color. The plant is like “Gold Dust” in size and leaf shape, but rather than just being splashed with yellow, Magnificent’s leaves are splashed with pink, orange, red, bronze, purple and yellow!

Oakleaf also lives up to its name with attractively shaped, multi-fingered leaves in shades of green and bronze with yellow, orange and red veining.

Zanzibar looks more like an ornamental grass. The long, slender leaves display splotched shades of red, orange, purple and gold.

Mother & Daughter has intriguing, long, slender dual leaves with rounded tips. The leaves range in shades from dark green to deep purple.

Eleanor Roosevelt is a real dazzler with slender, long leaves in a lovely medium green with purple shading and yellow spots.

Croton Petra is a widespread and readily available variety. It has green tear-drop shaped leaves with orange, red or yellow veins and edges.

Care And Cultivation of Tropical Crotons

When growing in the wild in the bright, warm Caribbean, these shrubs can reach lofty heights, and their bright colors add a distinctly festive air to their natural setting. When grown in zones 10 and 11 in the United States, or even when grown as an annual in some of the cooler states, they usually do not grow taller than three or four feet high.

Even so, they make a real impact on the summer landscape. You can create a dazzling display by planting a mass of one variety. Alternately, create an eclectic delight by mixing and matching varying sizes, shapes and color combinations.

When planted in groups or as specimen plants, Codiaeum variegatum add color, texture, and drama to an all-green landscape. They also bring excitement to your garden when flowering plants are no longer blooming.

How to Grow and Care for Croton Plants – Easy!

Although many people think the colorful “variegated laurel” is quite tricky to grow, the fact is crotons are easy to grow as long as you understand their needs.

One of the most important things to understand is that Crotons do not like “moving.” For this reason, your plant may go into shock when you bring it home. It may also go into shock when being brought indoors for the winter.

One of the most common croton questions is:

“Why did my plant lose its leaves?”

Shock is usually the cause of leaf loss, but don’t get upset. Give your plant some TLC, and before you know it, you’ll have fresh, tender leaves that will soon mature to their full, blazing glory.

croton-legoland-02-092016

Large potted long leaved Croton “Eleanor Roosevelt” used outdoors for color – Legolandk, Winter Haven, Florida Sept 2016

Garden Croton: Growing And Care Of The Codiaeum Outdoors

Be sure to put your outdoor crotons in an area where they will get plenty of direct sunlight for the best show of color. When planting croton outdoors in these areas, give them plenty of room to grow. Spacing them three or four feet apart is not excessively ambitious.

These tropical plants are hardy in USDA hardiness zones 10 and 11. If you live in an area where they must grow as annuals, plant them closer together for a fuller effect. Leave no more than a couple of feet of space between plants.

Croton Plant Care Indoors

When keeping Crotons indoors, be sure to provide them with plenty of bright indirect light and some direct sunlight. Plant in a light, fluffy high-quality blend of a well-drained soil with a controlled released fertilizer mixed in.

As houseplants, croton appreciates high humidity and occasional misting. If the humidity level is low in your house, set your plant on a bed of gravel in a drip tray.

Put a little water in the bottom of the tray, but don’t allow it to come in contact with the bottom of the pot. Never allow your potted Croton to stand in water as this will promote root rot.

Croton grown as a tree outside Cheddar's Restaurant Tampa, Florida

Croton grown as a tree outside Cheddar’s Restaurant Tampa, Florida

10 Smart Croton Care Tips

Indoors or outdoors, these tips will help provide your Croton with the care it needs.

#1 – Provide Plenty Of Full Sun!

For the very best show of color, your plants need six or eight hours a day of direct sunlight. Indoors, your plants should sit in an east facing or west-facing window to get good sunlight all day long. If you don’t have a good east or west-facing window, use a grow light to supplement whatever sun you have. Without ample light, your plant will display green leaves.

#2 – Provide Protection As Needed

Even though Crotons loves sun, you should be aware that these plants to be burned by very harsh, punishing sun. If you live in a desert location, provide a little protection from the sun. A desert environment is the ideal setting to use crotons as an under-story for trees that provide high, light shade. Alternately, use shade cloth to provide a little protection.

#3 – Plant In A Light, Rich And Well-Drained Soil

You can use a good commercial potting soil for potted and container plants, but you may also want to add some finished compost. Alternately, use a combination of peat moss or coco coir and organic compost as soil for potted crotons.

Don’t use rock soils with very high pH levels or lots of calcium. When selecting your pot or container, pay close attention to the drainage. Drill more holes if needed to keep the soil well aerated.

#4 – Water To Keep Soil Moist, Not Soggy

During the growing season, check your plant frequently and water well whenever the top inch of soil becomes dry. Water thoroughly, until the water runs through the soil. Don’t water again until the top inch of soil dries out.

#5 – Watch For Wilt!

If you notice the leaves of your plant beginning to wilt, you may be watering too much. If the bottom leaves of the plant dry out and fall off, you are not watering enough.

#6 – Adjust Your Watering Schedule Seasonally

In the wintertime, plant’s will not need as much water. Monitor the soil and water judiciously. Do keep your plant on a rock tray to provide humidity throughout the winter months.

#7 – Fertilize With A High Nitrogen And Potassium Mix (8-2-10)

Be careful not to fertilize excessively as this can cause damaged roots and dull leaves.

#8 – Choose The Right Fertilizing Schedule

Some gardeners like to fertilize Codiaeum lightly, once a month. Others believe they should fertilize only a couple of times during the growing season with a high quality, slow-released acidic fertilizer.

A good schedule is:

  • One feeding in late February or early March
  • One feeding late in May

For young plants, a third feeding in mid-summer (July) may be a good idea. It is not a good idea to fertilize in autumn as the plant should not produce new leaves this late in the year. It’s better to let the existing leaves harden up for the winter.

#9 – Adjust Your Fertilizing Schedule Seasonally

If you follow a weak, once a month fertilizer schedule, reduce it to every other month in the wintertime. If you have been fertilizing more heavily during the growing season, stop altogether in the winter.

#10 – Maintain Consistent Temperatures

Mild weather and temps are preferred. As a tropical plant, your croton naturally likes warm, pleasant weather. Temperatures should be kept between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower temperatures may cause leaf drop. When keeping your plant as a houseplant in winter, be sure to protect it from cold drafts, which may put stress on the plant.

croton corkscrew at Legoland Sept 2016

Large “corkscrew” Croton planted in ground Legoland – Winter Haven, Florida Sept 2016

Propagation of Crotons is Easy!

You can grow baby crotons in a number of ways. Rooting the leaves is surely the simplest method.

Rooting Leaves or Stems

Crotons were used many years ago, not as a potted plant, but in colorful arrangements.

The leaves were used to make living coffee table displays by rooting a number of leaves in a light, airy soil in a low planter. These colorful displays make a beautiful living decoration.

Before South Beach, Disney World, Legoland, Universal Studios and the Cuban missile crisis, Miami Beach was a vacation spot in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Croton leaves were used to add color and decorate the interiors of hotels.

You can grow new plants from cuttings in a more standard way. To do this, cut a segment from a healthy stem with a minimum of three sets of leaves. Remove the bottom leaves.

There should still be between three and five leaves at the top. Place the cutting in a glass of water and set it in a warm, bright setting. Change the water every couple of days. You should have roots within a couple of weeks.

Alternately, dip the end of the cutting in rooting hormone and plant it in a mixture of coco coir or peat moss, sand and vermiculite. Cover your planted cutting with a humidity trapping cover, such as a plastic bag or a plastic soda bottle. Roots should develop within a couple of weeks.

No matter which method you use to get cuttings started, once vigorous roots develop, repot the cutting into an appropriate pot filled with light, airy potting mix as described above.

Separating Roots

Another good way to propagate crotons is to separate the roots when repotting. Just remember these plants don’t like being moved around, so both sections might suffer some leaf drop after repotting. Be patient and continue to care for them as usual. They will soon recover and rally.

Air Layering

You can also use air layering to propagate the Codiaeum. To do this, locate a sturdy stem and make a small, diagonal slit in it. The slit should go about halfway through the stem. Cover the slit with rooting hormone and use a toothpick or a matchstick to hold the slit open.

Pack some damp sphagnum moss around the slit and bandage it up with plastic wrap. Watch the moss and dampen it as needed. When it starts to turn tan, you need to add water. Within a few weeks, roots should begin to develop. You will see them through the plastic wrap.

When this happens, you can remove the “bandage” and use a sharp set of sterilized scissors or pruners to clip through the stem and separate the new plant from the parent. Pot immediately using a well-draining, light, airy potting mixture.

How To Repot Your Croton

When your plant begins to outgrow its pot, select a suitable pot that is a couple of inches larger than the one it’s currently growing in. Put a layer of appropriate potting mix in the pot and carefully separate your plant from its old pot.

Massage the roots lightly to separate them and help them spread. If the plant has been severely root-bound, you may need to use a potting knife to detangle them.

Place your plant on the layer of soil in the bottom of the new pot. The top of the root ball should sit about an inch below the rim of the pot. Fill the area around the root ball with fresh potting mix and water the plant thoroughly. Add more potting mix if needed.

How to Prune Your Croton

Pruning is not a big part of croton care. Typically plants need pruning to remove diseased or dead foliage. Always use a very sharp, clean cutting implement to avoid damaging the plant or spreading infection from other plants.

Don’t cut stems in the middle. Prune all the way back to the main, central stem. If a branch is diseased, be sure to remove it completely. Cuts should be at least six inches away from the damaged portion of the plant.

It’s best to cut just above a node or a leaf. Branches that become too leggy should also be cut back just above a node or a leaf. Pruning helps the plant retain its shape.

Remember that cutting away too much at a time could stress these plants. Never cut off more than about a third of a healthy branch. Don’t prune again until new leaves have grown.

Take care to avoid contact with the sap. The sap is at best irritating and at worst poisonous. Wear disposable gloves and wash your hands after pruning.

Troubleshooting Croton Problems

Green Leaves:

If your plant seems perfectly healthy but its leaves are just plain old, boring green, the plant needs more light. Most varieties can do pretty well in high, partial shade (and some do better) but remember the plant needs lots of sun to produce their stunning colors.

At the same time, remember the ideal temperatures for these plants lie between 60 and 80 degrees. Too much heat or too much cold can also interfere with leaf color.

Burned Leaves:

Leaves exposed to excessive, harsh sunlight may burn. This manifest itself as gray patches. If the plant is in a container, relocate it. If not, provide some shade with a patio umbrella or shade cloth during the hottest times of the day.

Deformed Leaves:

Plants with twisted leaves that do not naturally grow that way may be an indication of excessive fertilizer. If this happens, adjust your schedule to just two feedings a year as described above.

Leaf Drop:

Remember to choose the plant’s location carefully to avoid the need move it around excessively. Leaf drop caused by relocation is a common problem with these plants.

Dull Leaves:

Wipe down leaves with a damp paper towel from time to time. You can use a mild mixture of neem oil and water for this purpose. As you will see in the “pest” section, this will not only add shine to your leaves; it will also help protect them from a wide variety of intruders.

5 Common Croton Pests

#1 – Spider Mites:

When kept indoors, croton plants often experience problems with spider mites. These can be hard to detect on variegated varieties because of the bright colors and splashy markings on the leaves. Spider mites typically cause yellow spots. If left untreated, they can cause leaves to die.

To remove spider mites, wipe them off with a damp paper towel. Try to keep the humidity levels high around your plants to prevent spider mite infestation. Establishing a schedule of cleaning the leaves will also discourage spider mites.

#2 – Plant Scale:

Codiaeum growing outdoors are susceptible to a few other pests. Croton scale is another tiny insect that is very hard to see on these plants. Cleaning the leaves with a mild solution of neem oil and water once a week or so will help prevent and treat this infestation.

#3 – Mealybugs:

These are tiny, sort of fluffy bugs that like to set up housekeeping on your plant and suck the life out of it. You can kill them on contact with a cotton ball dipped in isopropyl alcohol.

Knock large infestations off the plant with a vigorous stream of water and/or insecticidal soap or neem oil. Regularly cleaning the leaves with neem oil will also kill those in residence and discourage newcomers.

#4 – Leaf Burrowing Thrips

Thrips can be a problem, especially for Petra crotons. These tiny bugs can also be knocked off the plant with a strong stream of water.

Be sure to attack them early in the morning before they become active. You may need to do this every day for a week to completely eradicate the infestation. As with the other pests, neem oil or insecticidal soap are both effective deterrents.

#5 – Caterpillar

Achaea janata (aka croton caterpillar) can also be problematic. These critters decimate variegated crotons. Regular leaf cleaning with a neem oil solution may deter them. Early treatment with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is most effective.

Bt is a bacterium deadly to caterpillars but does not affect beneficial insects. It is most effective if used early in the spring while caterpillars are still very small. Follow packaging instructions carefully for best results.

4 Common Croton Diseases

#1 – Edema

Edema is caused by over-watering. If your plants’ leaves look blistered, reduce watering and the condition should subside.

#2 – Crown Gall

The bacteria, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, dwells in the soil and causes crown gall. The bacteria manifests itself as swollen growths on your plant’s leaf veins and stems. To treat this problem, remove the galls using a sharp, clean cutting implement.

Use a pruning sealer to treat the cuts. Because the bacterium comes from the soil, the problem may return again and again for plants in the landscape. If you find galls on a container plant, repotting may help prevent a repeat of the problem.

#3 – Leaf Blight Or Leaf Spot

(Anthracnose) is caused by fungus. It manifests as soft, black spots on plant leaves. Treat the plant with copper spray or neem oil. You may also want to try counteracting the fungus with a spray solution of Bacillus subtilis, which consumes fungal growth.

#4 – Powdery Mildew

Plants with constantly damp leaves will develop powdery mildew, which manifests as a white, powdery substance covering the plant leaves.

To prevent its development, avoid spraying the plants when you water them. Instead, just soak the soil. Clean the leaves with a mild neem oil solution on a regular basis to remove and prevent mildew growth.

How Poisonous are Croton Plants?

As long you don’t ingest the leaves or experience prolonged contact with the sap, Codiaeum’s will not harm you.

The problem is they contain a white, sticky sap that acts as a natural defense mechanism for the plant. When the plant is injured, the sap is released.

If the sap gets on your skin, it can cause irritation. If you touch your mouth or eyes with sappy fingers, it could cause more severe problems.

This is why it’s a good idea to wear disposable gloves when pruning and working with croton plants. Be sure to wash up when finished.

If you develop skin irritation from the sap, wash the affected area thoroughly and apply 2.5% hydrocortisone cream. If you, a child or a pet ingests any part of the plant, seek medical help right away.

Codiaeum sap contains a very irritating and purgative oil. Fortunately, the sap is vile tasting, so accidental poisoning is unlikely to occur. Even so, it is wise to keep kids and pets away from these plants.

Symptoms of Croton Poisoning

All parts of the croton plant are poisonous. Ingestion of the sap or seeds can cause:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

Contact with skin, eyes or mucus membranes can cause:

  • Eye irritation
  • Skin rash
  • Blisters

This is why it is so important to keep kids and pets away, choose planting location carefully to avoid rough contact with the plants and use precautions when handling these plants. [source]

Take Advantage of Great Buys in Autumn!

You might think of these tropical plants as only a summertime plant but look around your local garden center in the fall. You’ll see lots of lovely Crotons often heavily discounted as the season changes.

This is an excellent opportunity to bring some life and color indoors for the winter and have gorgeous outdoor plants next season.

Because of their dazzling colors, crotons are an excellent choice as indoor container plants through the autumn and the winter.

Companion plant them with asters and Belgian mums to create a colorful, decorative indoor autumn garden. Mix a few pots of crotons in with your potted poinsettias for dazzling Christmas color.

Get the most out of your plants by enjoying their bright colors during the winter months. Use of artificial light and proper feeding gives you a lot of control and ability to influence color production.

If you have a sunroom, fill it with crotons for the winter. They will love the bright sun, and you will enjoy the bright color.

Even with their finicky ways and poisonous tendencies, their brilliant colors and interestingly shaped leaves along with a wide variety of Codiaeum variegatum make them very popular house and garden plants.

Just remember all this showiness needs lots of bright light and a very comfortable atmosphere.

Although some of the newer varieties do well with low light (e.g., 100-200 foot candles) most are sun-lovers and even those that can get by with less light, appreciate the sun.

If in doubt about the amount of light your plants need, let the leaves be your guide. If you have lovely green leaves, your plant needs more light! If your leaves are blistered, provide protection.

For success with crotons, just remember to keep the lighting bright, the fertilizer light, the temperature cool and the humidity high. Provide light, airy, nourishing soil and don’t move your plant around at all if you can help it.

If you follow these simple tips, you should be able to enjoy brilliant color and lots of interest indoors and out all year round.