Croton, Codiaeum variegatum

Croton, Codiaeum variegatum, is grown as an ornamental for its striking foliage.

Croton, Codiaeum variegatum, is a common houseplant grown for its striking foliage. It is one of six species of broadleaf evergreen perennials, shrubs, and small trees in this genus in the euphorbia family (Euphorbiaceae) which are native to tropical Asia and the western Pacific region (not to be confused with Croton, another genus of more than 700 species in the same family, in which it was formerly incorrectly classified as Croton variegatum). This evergreen shrub or small tree varies widely in leaf color and pattern, and numerous cultivars have been developed. It is a tender perennial, hardy only in zones 11-12. In subtropical and tropical climates they are frequently used as landscape shrubs for dramatic hedges, bold focal points in gardens, or potted specimens around buildings.

Croton is a small shrub used as a landscape plant in tropical climates.

In its native habitat croton is a branching, bushy shrub that grows up to 10 feet tall, but those offered as houseplants are usually much smaller than the wild plant. The large, thick, leathery leaves are 2 to 12 inches long and quite variable. The shiny, alternate leaves may be linear to oval, have a smooth or lobed margin (sometimes deeply cut to the midrib), and some are wavy or twisted into a spiral. The foliage color ranges from green variegated with white, pink, orange, red, yellow, or purple in various combinations that may change as the leaves age. Markings may follow along the major veins or may be blotches on any part of the leaf blade in regular or random patterns. Sports, or shoots that are completely different in appearance from the parent plant, are not uncommon. As with most plants in the Euphorbiaceae, the milky sap that bleeds from cut stems may cause contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals.

The leaves of Codiaeum variegatum vary in color even on the same plant (L) and in shape from oval to linear, with entire or lobed margins (RC) and can be twisted or wavy (R).

When grown as a houseplant it rarely flowers, but when growing in the ground in frost-free climates in spring it produces insignificant flowers in long axillary racemes. The white male flowers with five small petals and 20-30 stamens that give a starburst-like effect are produced on separate inflorescences than the yellowish, petal-less female flowers.

The male flowers are produced on long inflorescences (L-RC) with many stamens (R) that give a starburst effect.

Pollinated female flowers are followed by fruits which are a small tripartite capsule about a third of an inch in diameter containing three small seeds.

The female flowers are produced on stouter inflorescences (L), each with three stigmas and no petals (LC and C). Fertilized flowers are followed by rounded fruits (RC and R).

Croton is usually offered as a houseplant, but can also be used as a seasonal accent plant outdoors.

Croton is typically offered as an indoor plant, but can also be used outdoors as a seasonal accent plant in containers or plantings of annuals or mixed ornamentals. If growing in containers, indoors or out, think about choosing a pot color that accents the color of the foliage, either echoing one of the leaf colors or something that contrasts with the dominant color. Try combining croton with other tropical plants grown as annuals that have flowers in colors that repeat the color(s) of the leaves, such as orange-flowering lantana, yellow golden shrimp plant, or red pentas. Or choose something with purple flowers, such as angelonia or mealycup sage, to contrast with a croton cultivar with orange and red foliage.

Croton has the best color in bright, indirect light.

Croton does best in fertile, well-drained, moist soil. They need bright, indirect light when grown indoors. Outdoors they thrive in partial shade, and in cool climates can tolerate full sun if kept moist (and are acclimated first when moved from inside). Higher light produces more vibrant color in the leaves and a more compact plant. The colorful leaves may revert to shades of green in insufficient light, while too much direct sun makes the leaves gray and dull looking. These plants have moderate water needs and should be watered only when the top half-inch to an inch of soil dries out. Reduce watering in the winter. Plants will drop leaves if they are too wet or too dry for extended periods. As a tropical plant, it does best with moderate to high humidity and warm temperatures.

Several varieties of croton in a landscape in Hawaii.

Croton does best at temperatures between 60 and 85F, often suffering leaf drop if temperatures remain below 50F. Protect them from drafts and severe fluctuations in temperature. Changing environments too quickly can shock the plants and cause leaf drop. Fertilize once or twice during the growing season, or more frequently if you want faster growth. Repot when the plant outgrows the container, moving up to a pot only 1-2 inches larger. Plants can be pruned hard in early spring, before new growth begins to stimulate branching and new growth if they get leggy. Croton has few pest problems other than the usual insects that commonly infest houseplants (mealybugs, spider mites, scales).

Croton is easily grown as a container plant.

Container-grown plants can be moved outdoors for the growing season once temperatures are consistently above 50F, gradually acclimating them to the different light levels outside, and moving them back inside in the fall before temperatures drop below 50F (colder temperatures can cause leaf loss). Plants used as seasonal plants planted in the ground can be lifted and potted in the fall.

This plant is easily propagated by air layering in spring or by taking softwood cuttings in summer. Although it can be grown from seed, the offspring won’t resemble the parent, so asexual propagation is the only way to maintain specific cultivars.

‘Gold Dust’ croton.

There are several hundred cultivars of this popular foliage plant, selected and bred to offer a wide diversity of leaf shapes and colors, plant sizes and improved tolerance of low light interior conditions (although the names are often not indicated when offered for sale), including:

  • ‘Andreanum’ has broadly oval yellow leaves with gold veins and margins.
  • ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’ has long, slender leaves of medium green dotted with golden yellow spots, changing with age to dark red. ‘Franklin Roosevelt’ is similar, but splashed yellow, orange and pink.
  • ‘Gold Star’ croton.

    ‘Evening Embers’ has unusual metallic blue-black leaves highlighted in red and green.

  • ‘Gold Dust’ has bright green rounded oval leaves spotted with golden-yellow.
  • ‘Gold Star’ is similar to ‘Gold Dust’ with yellow spots splashed across the bright green leaves, but with much narrower leaves.
  • ‘Magnificent’ has green and yellow variegated oval-pointed leaves spattered in brilliant shades of red, orange, pink and sometimes bronze or purple.
  • ‘Majesticum’ has pendulous branches and linear leaves with yellow midrib veins that mature from deep green to red.
  • ‘Mammy’ croton.

    ‘Mammy’ (or ‘Mammie’) has elongate, twisted, multi-colored leaves tending towards greens and purples with bits of red.

  • ‘Oakleaf’ has multicolored leaves with indentations resembling those of an oak leaf in greens to bronzes with red, orange, or yellow veining.
  • ‘Petra’ is one of the most common croton varieties available with variously colored bold yellow, pink and orange to red markings along the veins of the dark green pointed-oval leaves that creates an almost lacy appearance when viewed from a distance.
  • ‘Petra’ croton.

    ‘Mrs. Iceton’ or ‘Red Iceton’ has pointed-tipped oval leaves that start out a bright, warm yellow and change into pink and red as they age.

  • ‘Spirale’ has narrow red and green leaves that twist in a spiral.
  • ‘Thai String’ has multicolored, very narrow leaves.
  • ‘Zanzibar’ has long, slender, grassy-looking leaves in shades of purple, red, orange, and gold.

Other croton cultivars (L-R): unknown, ‘Irene Kingsley’, unknown, ‘Iceton’, ‘Thai String’ and ‘Ramshot’.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison

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  1. Hello!

    Just wondering after reading this article if this plant would survive indoors in Wisconsin-would the indirect sunlight be enough? Is there one cultivar that is better for indoor growing than others? Also, I have kiddos-is this plant safe to be around them?

  2. One can easily see how this plant could become a favorite landscaping tool because of the beautiful multi colored leaves. Because of its height, extra room would be needed.

  3. This article is timely! I bought a Croton last summer and have been overwintering it near a window. The plant didn’t have a tag and I have been wondering what it was! It had spider mites and has dropped leaves but did flower. I was ready to pitch it but now after reading this article, I will keep it and pair it with Lantana this summer.

  4. I never thought of using this plant as an accent in containers outdoors….interesting how the male and female flowers are distinguished.

  5. I had a plant such as this and tried to winter it over in my heated detached greenhouse. it did not survive. all the leaves dropped off. I now know why. the temperature in Jan & Feb in the greenhouse was consistently at 61-65 degrees. this article states it sb 60-85. I will buy another I love the contrasting leaves in my large blue pot! and keep it in the house where it’s warmer.

  6. I was gifted a croton about 8 years ago and have been successful in keeping it growing and thriving indoors, placing on an outside, east face patio in the summer, and returning to the house in winter. Only minimal problems w/ spider mites that a “spray bath”in the tub easily remedies. Will consider outdoor container garden in summer with pentas or lantana suggested…..lovely colorful accents.

  7. I had been given a croton years ago and loved the look of it but was not able to keep it going in my house with less light and probably drier conditions than it needed. (Now that I read the requirements). Living in the north as we do, we often forget that these plants are actually native somewhere and the mention of them growing in hedges was definitely a new thought for me. Also, that they could be pruned back in the spring to encourage new and more compact growth. AND, as a bonus, I had never come across the word “tripartite” and always love learning a new word!

  8. Excellent article, have new ideas for my seasonal planters as I am also growing Lantana & will be able to plant with Petra croton.

  9. I remember the leaves falling off my croton plant.

  10. I have found potted crotons easy to maintain outdoors after the temperature exceeds 60 degrees.
    The variegated leaves lend a sub-tropical look to the grouping of my other potted plants and
    visitors to my gardens often comment about the colorful leaves.

  11. I have seen these in stores but now know that they come in a big variety of colors. I really like Mammy. Living in the far north, I can’t plant it as a perennial but am going to try putting it out in my part shade area in the summer.

  12. This article had good information for keeping crotons healthy.

  13. It is a beautiful plant with lots of variations. I have no real place for houseplants, which is a shame. But I remember seeing these all over when my husband and I used to go to Jamaica (8 times!). They were all over the place and quite exotic and colorful tucked into gardens.

  14. I have more than 100 plants in my plant room. I have a plant that my mother had when I was a child. She would have been 102 this year. I have definitely killed more plants than most have owned. Usually this has been during severe illness or being away from home for months. This plant has been a complete failure for me. I have killed at least 5 of them. The most recent demise I only had 5 weeks. I know how it should be grown. But it still dies on me. Wouldn’t even give this plant to an enemy!

  15. Croton plants are beautiful in tropical places. They are on a list I have of plants that are dangerous or irritating to cats. The article had some good reminders about how temperatures and light can affect color and leaf drop. I liked the idea of matching leaf color to pot color or companion flowers like lantana.

  16. I have seen croton plants for sale around the area. I haven’t owned one myself although I do think all their color is fun. They seem easy enough to grow which nice. It is interesting that the seeds do not produce a replicant of the parents. What causes this type of variability in these plants? How did they develop new cultivars if they couldn’t predict what they would get genetically?

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