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Croton, the world’s most colorful shrub

Containerized crotons lend a festive look to the porch, patio or deck.
Containerized crotons lend a festive look to the porch, patio or deck. TNS

It has been called the world’s most colorful shrub which is certainly not an exaggeration and I have been in love with it ever since I made my first visit to the Caribbean 30 years ago. If you are a gardener used to growing in drier climates, you might not be familiar with the croton.

Crotons are known botanically as Codiaeum variegatum and though I first became enamored with them in the Caribbean they are native to Malaysia, Indonesia Northern Australia, and western Pacific Islands. Family-wise it is a Euphorbia meaning it is related to copper plants which I recently wrote about and our wonderful Christmas plant the poinsettia.

In the Caribbean and likewise its native habitats you’ll see this somewhat woody perennial reaching 6-foot plus, giving a carnival-like atmosphere to wherever it is being grown. Here in Savannah and the South Carolina Low Country area, I have never seen so many grown as annuals in the summer landscape.

For the amount of impact they give they are certainly a good buy as in our area, they will reach two feet tall and perhaps a little wider. The heat and humidity of our area are just perfect to allow them to thrive. Wherever I look, whether grown with elephant ears, hibiscus or the Hawaiian Ti plant the look is festive and tropical.

You might be thinking what is the use of touting this most amazingly beautiful tropical in September? The answer is, opportunity. I don’t if you have been to the garden center lately but it is this time of the year that crotons start showing up as special buys. I love it for a couple of reasons.

First I love using crotons in partnership with Belgian mums for a colorful fall display. I like them with pumpkins and asters too. You can let your creative genius come alive. There are no rules to follow on how to use your tropical croton or better yet make that plural….crotons. Buy several don’t, be bashful.

As I write this I am sitting in a large sun room with a ton of glass and available light which will be just perfect for not just the world’s most colorful shrub but the world’s most colorful houseplant. In the landscape, we want fertile organic-rich soil with good drainage. In your indoor houseplant select a good fluffy humus blend that has controlled released fertilizer.

Indoors they will need bright light, with a moment or two of direct sun. In the landscape, it seems they thrive anywhere other than pure shade. It is the sunlight that stimulates this incredible display of color. As a houseplant keep ample moisture but never soggy or wet. If your room has low humidity, consider placing your container on a saucer of wet gravel.

The croton is cold hardy to zones 10 and 11 and in these locales, they would be spaced 3 to 4 feet apart. If you are going to use them as annuals like in my region they should be massed or clustered together 18 to 24-inches apart for the showiest display.

There are a number of varieties and types of leaf shapes and size but basically, you will be buying generically, which with this plant seems to be just fine. This plant with large glossy waxy leaves and every shade of gold, yellow, green, red, and pink is simply to mesmerizing to overlook.

I hope you will take this opportunity to use them in your fall decor and indoors as well. Then next spring shock your neighbors, friends, and relatives and use them in the landscape for a long growing season of WOW.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.

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