The first thing to come to mind when somebody mentions the word Croton I instantly think of Southern Florida. From what I have witnessed it must be one of South Florida’s most popular shrubs and this is due in part to a long history with the plant. For others, the first thing to come to mind might also be a place more tropical. California most likely falls pretty far down the list of first thoughts. However, there are Crotons in Southern California and “Crotonheads” (as they like to be called) can be found here growing them in their gardens.
Native to Southeast Asia, Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) do surprisingly well down to a USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 10a or in a localized microclimate in California. In Florida they can survive in a 9b. Crotons in Southern California will defoliate in cold winters with frost, and a hard freeze will kill them. So I always recommend that you cover your plants if frost or a freeze is being predicted.
For the most part Crotons in Southern California are slow growers. This slower growth is great in that you can keep them to a manageable size in the garden without much effort, but also can be a curse should should a freeze or frost knock them back. For me the fastest Croton in my yard is one called ‘Purity.’ While not the most attractive in my opinion, it is a great grower.
The Croton ‘Purity’ actually does so well here in my Southern Californian garden that its seeds germinate freely in my yard. It is the only Croton that I grow to do this.
Crotons are grown for their fantastically colored leaves that can be found in a wide variety of shapes. Some are small while others are large. They can be found long and narrow or quite oval shaped. There are croton leaves shaped like an oak leaf, multi-
Here we see Croton ‘Mammy’ displaying a broad range of intermingled colors on a wavy leaf. This plant can not help but scream for attention as visitors walk by it on the way to my front door.
This is an unknown cultivar that I carelessly lost the tag to years ago. Planted in 2007, these two plants have grown into beauties.
In Southern California you can plant a Croton in almost any light. I find they do best in partial shade or a shifting sun location. Ideally you want some overhead protection or canopy to help prevent cold damage should we see a frosty winter. Thanks in part to overhead protection I have yet to see frost damage on any of the Crotons that I grow. This unknown cultivar is extremely happy under the protection of a Murraya koenigii tree that offers up full, late afternoon sun.
I would not recommend that you plant most Croton varieties into full sun. I found that many cultivars will fade in color or burn during the extreme heat and low humidity a Santa Ana event can bring. They also do not grow as healthy in dense shade. Here you see a Croton ‘General Paget’ which is leggy and stunted from not enough light.
Croton ‘Charmer’ is also planted in too much shade thanks to a quick growing canopy of palms. This is a beautifully colored Croton in a sunnier location. In my garden it is mostly green.
From my experience, Crotons in Southern California are usually pest and disease free, but can occasionally have a mealybug or scale infestation. However, the only plants in my garden to suffer from an infestation were those grown in too much shade and are weak from it.
Crotons can grow up to 10 feet tall in tropical locations, but here in my garden I figure it would take more than 15 years for my fastest grower to approach that size. While Crotons can be big, there are some dwarf varieties. Shown below, my Croton ‘Picasso’s Paintbrush’ was planted in 2007 and is still very small. I grow this Croton more as an anomaly rather than for any bold statement. It’s an oddball in the Croton world.
Not surprisingly, I have found that well-draining soils work best for growing Crotons in Southern California. Crotons do not like to dry out when it is really hot, but can be surprisingly drought tolerant when well established. A spinkler valve with a broken wire in my garden confirmed this a few years back. Due to the broken wire not activating the sprinkler valve during scheduled waterings, a zone in my yard was not watered for two weeks one spring. If it had not been for the wilting of some other plants in that area, I never would have noticed my Croton was under stress from lack of water.
In the winter I find it very important that the soil go dry between waterings. I have attempted to grow quite a few of the other more Gody cultivars but they did not survive. In almost all cases the plant would die in late winter from the soil being too wet. The cultivars that have thrived in my garden seem to be better adapted at growing with wet feet in the cold, damp soils our winters bring. But even these I like to keep mostly dry if I can in winter.
Follow the growing advice I discussed in this blog post and you can end up having a tropical beauty like Croton ‘Stoplight’ growing in your garden as well.
Currently, Croton ‘Stoplight’ is my favorite Croton that I grow in my garden. You can see from the picture below where it gets its name.
Crotons demand attention with their stunning color that is guaranteed to stand out in a typical mediterranean climate garden. They make such a bold statement that they really need to be found in more gardens in California. Especially if you like the tropical look.