It’s not always easy to keep flowering plants in the normal conditions of our homes: it’s too hot, too dark, the air is too dry, and so on. After all, green plants are easier to manage: all we ask of them is to make new leaves, which requires less effort than flowering. But just green leaves lacks punch. Wouldn’t it be possible to combine the beautiful colors of flowering plants with the foliage of a green plant? Yes, if you choose croton.
Croton, a Popular Houseplant
Croton (Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum) is a tropical plant native to the Moluccan Islands. The wild form is a large shrub or small tree, 5 m (15 feet) or more in height, with shiny, oblong, dark-green leaves.
Centuries ago, the plant seems to have given rise to a mutation with yellow-peckled leaves. Considered attractive by the indigenous people, it began to be cultivated as an ornamental plant. Thanks to exchanges between different peoples in the region, croton was already well distributed throughout tropical Asia and the South Pacific islands by the time Europeans arrived.
And during these exchanges, further mutations took place: narrower, lobed, corkscrewed, curled leaves, and not only variegated yellow, but also variously striped and marked with red, orange, purple, brown, cream and various shades of yellow. So much so that crotons immediately attracted the interest of Europeans when they arrived in the area in the 17th century in search of spices.
The Dutch are said to have introduced croton to Europe around 1686, where the plant was a huge success with greenhouse growers. With the advent of central heating at the turn of the last century, croton, which could not tolerate the cold nights of the homes of yesteryear, began to invade homes as an indoor plant. Today, hundreds of thousands of crotons are sold every year in North America alone, the vast majority for use as houseplants.
Beautiful, but Not Easy
Croton is very pretty, everyone agrees, but not necessarily easy to grow. The main problem is one of over-accelerated production. Growers see the plant as a perishable commodity, to be sold quickly before it withers away.
From Florida to the North
So truckloads of crotons are brought to our regions directly from Florida, where the plant is plucked from its outdoor habitat in full sun to promote faster growth, shoved into a pot and shipped north. In less than two weeks, it has often gone from the humidity and scorching sun of Florida to your dark, dry living room. After such a change, it’s not surprising that it quickly begins to lose leaves! Before long, in fact, it can even die… This is how the croton developed a very bad reputation among indoor gardeners.
But it doesn’t have to be. Some dealers produce “acclimatized crotons”: rather than selling the croton immediately, it is gradually acclimatized to normal indoor conditions by moving it gradually, about two weeks at a time, from full sun to deeper and deeper shade. The final stage usually takes place in the final country: the plant is left for two weeks in a typical local environment before being sold. In this way, acclimatized crotons arrive at your home in perfect condition… and stay that way. Maintaining them is easy!
But where to find acclimatized crotons? There’s the rub! It’s rare that anyone takes the trouble to acclimatize the crotons sold to ordinary consumers: believe it or not, we’re being knowingly sold plants that will die very quickly! It’s the interior specialists – the people who look after the plants in office buildings, hotels and shopping malls – who ask for acclimatized crotons and pay extra for them. They’re hard to find for the average person.
Acclimatizing a Croton
Fortunately, you can acclimatize a croton to indoor conditions yourself. It’s all about cheating a little. Rather than placing a croton straight from Florida into your décor, give it the “plastic bag treatment”. Place it in a clear plastic bag (a cleaner’s bag, for example) and seal it, then place the plant indoors, but away from direct sunlight. (If the sun beats down on the bag, the temperature will quickly reach lethal levels). The high humidity inside the bag will help the plant retain its foliage while it adapts to the lower light levels. After two weeks, your plant will already be ready to face the moderate light of your home, but not yet the dry air.
The second step is to gradually introduce drier and drier air into the bag by poking a hole in it every day with a pencil. When the bag is in tatters, the plant will be perfectly acclimatized. Then remove the bag and place the plant wherever you like in your décor!
A well-acclimatized croton requires only a little basic care. Water it as soon as its potting soil starts to dry out, and turn it regularly so that it doesn’t grow all on one side, towards the light source. Increasing ambient humidity with a humidifier is useful for all plants (and for humans too!), but is not mandatory. A normal indoor temperature is just fine. In summer, fertilize with a “green plant” fertilizer. And prune any branches that have grown too long. That’s all there is to it! A very happy plant may even start flowering in the house, sending out stems covered with white or yellow pom-pom flowers.
Beware, however, of red spider mites, which love croton: if the leaves start to lose their luster, it’s probably this tiny, almost invisible mite that’s to blame. So give your croton a good shower every week, rinsing especially the backs of the leaves, and all will quickly return to normal.
Is a croton hard to keep? Not if you know its secrets!
Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le Soleil on November 23, 2003.