Don't forget to be thankful for Mother Nature

November 26, 2009

by Mimi Saenz,
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
The foliage of the AFD-5 variety resembles colorful oak leaves.
As you slowly wake up this Thanksgiving morning relaxing as you read your morning paper, take time to realize how much you have to be thankful for, even if for one day.

The first things that usually come to mind are our health and that of our loved ones, the relationships we share, and then the material things that we're afraid to mention, for in doing so, we may jinx ourselves.

We take for granted our beautiful surroundings - how Mother Nature has blessed us with dazzling sunrises and sunsets and beauty in the plants of the landscape.

The colorful palette of a mature croton leaf in that vision all but takes my breath away.


It was love at first sight for me. Then again, who wouldn't love all the drama of the rich, vibrant mottled reds, golds, greens, rusts and purples, so reminiscent of fall?

The leaves, thick and veined with their high-gloss shine, were lovely enough to inspire an artist to paint them - not to mention the myriad of shapes and sizes - some flat, some twisted, others pointed, always interesting.

Although I have a small collection, I am always on the hunt for the next croton.


Crotons, of the genus codiaeum variegatum and from the family euphorbiaceae, are native to the tropical South Seas.

They thrive in hot, humid weather and bright sunshine where they can grow to be small shrubs, some even 6 feet and taller.

You may see some plantings in Victoria, where they are usually sold as smaller potted plants, but they are more prevalent in the southern parts of the United States all the way across to Florida (zones 9-10. Victoria winters are a bit too cold for them. They will winter well if protected.


What makes the croton interesting is the visual impact it produces, even from a small plant.

There are no yards of green with just a hint of color from a flower to draw your attention, as the leaves themselves, resplendent in bright shades of color, are eye candy. Though the new leaves may start out green, they are quick to change color and will stay that way until the leaf dies.

In the Victoria area, the two varieties most commonly known are petra and Norma, which resemble each other in both coloring -golden and red/orange with like-colored veins - and leaf shape -broad leaf.

The difference is that the petra's lower mature leaves are greener and not as vibrant as Norma's darker, more colorful mature leaves. I have also seen more Mammy, with its rich wine-colored spiraled leaves and afd-5, oak-shaped leaves, fall colors, in the local nurseries.


Although I've read somewhere that crotons can be fussy at times, in my experience that is not true. They do well when planted in a general purpose potting soil, fed and watered - just as you would any other house plant.

As with most tropical plants, full sun and humidity are needed to make your plant thrive. In our area, we have plenty of these ingredients, but we sometimes lack moisture.

During the heat of summer, be sure to water your croton every two to three days if planted in the ground, more often if potted.

The leaves will start to droop when they are thirsty, but will revive when watered.

They also prefer to be fertilized on a regular basis with a general purpose fertilizer.

You might notice the top portion of your plant start to droop or topple over. This is due to the heaviness of the plant, in which case pruning may be in order.

To keep your plant looking its best as it grows taller, prune the top portion of the plant during the spring season. This will allow the plant to sprout new growth more quickly from the bottom and become bushier.

Another trimming is not recommended until new growth has emerged.

When a leaf is separated from the stem, it oozes a white milky sap that may cause an allergic reaction in some people so be aware of this.

Propagating Crotons

If your plant is growing well for you, spring is a good time to take those cuttings that were pruned and start a new plant. Take a 6-inch stem and strip it of all but the top two to three leaves. Using a knife, strip the bark from the bottom inch of the cutting and dip it into rooting hormone.

Next, take a pot of loosely filled potting soil and place the cutting in it. You may want to take a pencil and poke a hole in the soil before inserting the cutting, allowing the hormone to keep from rubbing off as it is inserted into the soil.

Gently pat the soil down and water the plant thoroughly. Until your new cutting takes root and starts new leaves, water it only before the soil dries out completely. Overwatering will cause root rot.

Even though crotons are sturdy plants, there are a few diseases that may plague your plant. In addition to root rot, watch for mites, thrips and scale.

To create a better stabilized environment for your new plant, you may use the top portion of a clear plastic container (such as a 2-liter soda bottle) and place it over the new cutting.

Take care to keep your new plant away from direct sun as it may scorch it.

Croton Foliage and Flowers

Crotons are grown for their spectacular foliage. Even though they sometimes bloom, it is usually an insignificant white bloom, not really a flower, but something resembling a stalk about 2 inches long with white small knobs.

I've only had one plant ever bloom. I had to really inspect the plant to see what it was.

I hope you will keep an eye out for this sometimes overlooked yet spectacularly visual plant and utilize it more in your landscape, especially now to complement the colorful holiday season.
Above: The infrequent bloom of a croton resembles a stalk about 2 inches long with white small knobs.

Right:  The dark, almost ebony, mature leaves of Mrs. Icetone are well-camouflaged against new growth.
The croton pops out with its fall color foliage against an ordinary green in the landscape.  The Mammy variety with deep purple leaves  mixed with the colorful Curly Boy  make for a colorful combination.
Shapes Of Croton Leaves

According to the Croton Society, there are nine types of leaf shapes:

1. Broad leaf -
self explanatory

2. Oak leaf -
the shape of a true oak leaf

3. Semi-oak leaf -
leaf lobes not distinct

4. Spiral leaf -
leaves are twisted

5. Narrow leaf -
leaf is 2-4 inches wide; 2-4 inches long

Very narrow leaf - 1/2inch or less wide; long, droopy

7. Small leaf -
looks like a broad leaf but no longer than 2 inches

8. Interrupted leaf -
leaf blade, leaf rib, leaf blade again

9. Recurved leaf -
leaf curls back on itself
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at