Almost everyone has that one article of clothing that is worn ad nauseum because it’s comfortable or familiar, right? Well, for me this is a simple white t-shirt with a vintage print of a young Bob Marley, his infectious smile and carefree dreadlocks in profile. I wear it everywhere… including the local nurseries while shopping for plants.
It was no surprise, then, when an employee at a nursery recently commented on my attire; however, it wasn’t quite what I expected to hear. “We have plants that match you shirt!” she exclaimed with excitement. I paused for a moment trying to figure out to what plant she could possibly be referring. As I turned to look in the direction she was pointing, her meaning became clear. Tightly packed on a metal rack were 3-gallon pots of dreadlocks crotons (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Dreadlocks’), trained to have a single trunk at the bottom. The result was an explosion of color in a crown of twisted foliar tresses.
The incident led me take a closer look at the world of crotons. Growing up in the Caribbean, I often took these plants for granted, since they practically grow like weeds in tropical climes. In Florida, however, crotons are prized for their adaptability, year round color, tropical feel and variety of shapes and sizes. Thomas Edison even experimented with these plants for potential rubber extraction at his botanical laboratory in Fort Myers.
The plants we commonly refer to as crotons are really 1 of only 15 species in the genus Codiaeum, which is in the Euphorbiaceae family (think crown of thorns, poinsettia, and jatropha). The Codiaeum species are a combination of evergreen shrubs, trees and perennials with thick, leathery leaves, found from Malaysia to the islands of the Pacific. There is a completely different genus called Croton, also in the Euphorbiaceae family, with more than 1,500 species and subspecies, including several weed species in Florida and the southern United States.
In the wild, Codiaeum variegatum is a small tree with plain green leaves. However, part of the allure of Codiaeum variegatum is that it is a genetically unstable species. This causes several mutations which can be targeted through selection. The result is over 400 cultivars available for use as houseplants or in the landscape. Color patterns range from multi-colored spots to irregular color patches or solid-colored leaves with contrasting veins. Virtually any color combination is possible, depending on the cultivar. A huge range of leaf shapes and sizes is also available!
Although capable of reaching 12 feet in height, crotons are usually maintained at a height of 3 to 5 feet and are well-suited to use as foundation, accent, specimen or container plants. The range of colors found on the foliage of crotons (red, yellow, green, black, purple pink and orange) is also sought out for use in corsages, flower arrangements and wedding bouquets.
Crotons must be propagated vegetatively, usually by tip cuttings. Cultivars with more colors will tolerate full sun, while those with more green leaves prefer shadier spots. All crotons will do best in fertile, moist, but well-drained soils, making them ideal as potted plants in temperate regions. Once established, all crotons are able to withstand drought for short periods of time. In north Florida and most of central Florida, crotons are best grown as indoor plants. If protected in the winter, though, many crotons may survive outdoors in central Florida.
Some of the more popular cultivars of Codiaeum variegatum currently on the market include ‘Banana’, ‘Gold Dust’, ‘Mammy’, ‘Norma’, ‘Petra’, ‘Sunny Star’ and ‘Dreadlocks’, although there are several hundred more available. Try experimenting with these colorful plants for a striking effect in your landscape.
For answers to all your gardening and landscaping questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit http://solutionsforyourlife.com.