Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) were used years ago to decorate East Coast Florida hotel lobbies as if they were flower arrangements and were planted extensively in Florida landscapes for their tropical color. They come in a kaleidoscope of colors: yellows, pinks, reds, greens, and rusts and occasional purple or black.
Crotons also come in a multitude of leaf shapes and sizes. Flowers are small in size and are secondary to the more ornate colorful leaves. Crotons make wonderful year round colorful container plants or landscape plants without a lot of work. Like everything else, plants also go in and out fashion. Popular in the 1940’s and 50’s, the croton is making a well-deserved return. They’re back!
The croton is classified as an old world evergreen shrub with origins in Asia. It is a true tropical shrub that can only tolerate mild winters with no freezes. When injured by an occasional frost, which we can get here in Southwest Florida, crotons respond to the stress by dropping their leaves, leaving them unsightly until regeneration starts. They do rebound, however, when temperatures begin to rise. This was evident a couple of winters ago when we had the coldest winter in the 20 years that I have lived here.
I have found that plants damaged or defoliated by frost- not only crotons, but most plants- come back, and usually are in better condition than before the frost. They begin to flower at all different times, because the frost tells the plants they are about to expire which causes them to set flowers to produce seed so they can live on in many future generations.
Also those pests that are numerous here in Florida either are killed or their cycle is broken by the cold.
I personally think plants welcome the freeze. It gives them an opportunity to rest which they normally don’t get, and they reward us with an unusually healthy pest-free flowering season. But that only lasts for a while until Mother Nature catches up.
Crotons are very slow growing and do not require much fertilizer. If you want to fertilize, using one with low nitrogen is the key. All you have to do is live in Southwest Florida one summer and you may think twice whether anything needs fertilizer; sitting on your lanai having your evening cocktails you can hear the grass growing!
Mulching your garden helps keep up the humidity that crotons love, and also keeps the weeds down. Pine straw is my choice for mulch. Crotons do not require a lot of water but need to be watched in a drought. Their leaves will wilt telling you they need water. Do not over water them or anything else in your garden; fungus and root rot can develop.
Crotons attain full color in partial shade or dappled shade to full sun. This makes crotons a must for a lot of condo complexes in Naples that have mostly green landscapes because crotons add a lot of color with a little work. Grown as a container plant or in the landscape, this plant will attract attention with very little care making it a must for those gardeners whose thumbs are not so green.
Crotons also take to hard-wood stem cuttings for propagation with ease. Take off bottom leaves and soak in water for a couple of days; then use sand as a potting mixture. Always keep cuttings of all kinds in shade to semi-shade and a temperature of above 60 degrees at night works the best. For the more advanced, air layering also works.
So put a little color in your life – in containers or landscapes – with crotons. It also seems that they are coming out with new and different varieties every day. KEEP BUTTERFLYING!!!
Mike Malloy, local author and artist known as “The Butterfly Man” has been a Naples resident since 1991. A Collier County Master Gardener, he has written two books entitled “Butterfly Gardening Made Easy for Southwest Florida,” and “Tropical Color – A Guide to Colorful Plants for the Southwest Florida Garden”, and currently writes articles on various gardening topics for several local publications. Mike has planted and designed numerous butterfly gardens around Naples including many schools, the City of Naples, Rookery Bay, the Conservancy and Big Cypress. Bring your gardening questions to the Third Street Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings or on Thursdays at the Naples Botanical Garden where he does a Plant Clinic or visit his website, www.naplesbutterfly.com