Crotons, or Codiaeum species, are about as spectacular as any indoor plants you can find. Color variations of all kinds may occur on a single plant, with leaves of pure green, green with yellow markings or combinations of green with bright orange, yellow and red. Many colorful varieties with ornamental leaf forms have been developed from the original tropical southeast Asian shrubs. The thick, leathery leaves may be simple or lobed, flat or twisted, broad or narrow.
As houseplants, Crotons can be dramatically used as individual specimens or in groups and also to add color to a massed green planting. Crotons grow rapidly and will last indefinitely in good conditions in the home, in two or three years a 12-inch plant may become a husky 3- to 5-foot shrub.
Bright light or full sun is an absolute requirement for crotons. In poor light they will lose their bright coloration - or indeed their leaves. Varieties with red coloration especially need sun. Common problems are drafts and low light. Crotons are very sensitive to drafts and will drop their leaves in a matter of hours, so protect them from drying winds and drafts.
Pruning may be needed to shape a croton and control its rapid growth. This is usually done in early spring or summer.
From spring through the summer a balanced houseplant fertilizer every two months will keep the plant vigorous. No feeding should be given during the rest of the year.
Crotons can be moved to porch or patio for summer decoration after night temperatures are sure to be above 50 degrees and moved back indoors well before the first frost in the fall.
Propagation is by stem cuttings or by air layering in spring or summer.
Pest problems may include scales, mealy bugs or spider mites. Pick scales off with your finger nails. Kill scales or mealy bugs by touching with cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol. You can also spray outdoors with an insecticide labeled for use against these pests. Good air circulation will help to prevent spider mite infestation. If spider mites are present, wash and spray the plant with warm water several times in a period of two or three weeks. A miticide spray should only be used outdoors, carefully following the manufacturers directions.
Somehow crotons have gotten a reputation for being difficult but it isn't necessarily so. Try them; you'll like them. Invite someone soon to meet your Jungle Queen, a darkly handsome plant with large leaves varying from dark green and yellow with red veining to almost black with irregular red markings. Or perhaps more to your liking would be the narrow-leaved, dark green and yellow-spotted Gold Dust Croton.
Indoor Gardening questions may be addressed to Jane Steffey at The Weekly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20071. Please include your address and telephone number.