There are more than 300 different varieties of croton plants with different kinds of leaves on every one. This might lead the gardener to think it is difficult to identify a croton plant, but their colorful display makes them a standout, an obvious garden delight.
Leaves are bilious yellow, red, purple, orange, black, white, pink or green. They all start green and add color along the veins of the leaf as they grow larger. There are narrow leaves, curly leaves, fat leaves and curved leaves. Creative names reflect their coloration. Spotlight, Picasso’s paintbrush, and twist and point are a few vibrant names of cultivars that are frequently used as accent plants.
Crotons come from Indonesia and were identified in the 1600s by botanist Georgius Everhardus Rumphius. (That is really his name!) Crotons arrived in America in 1871 where they thrived, becoming especially popular in the 1920s. Botanists still use Rumphius’ books, but they were originally considered top secret. Plants contain many unusual uses and countries considered these uses to be important economic discoveries. For instance, C. Eutherian has bark that is used to flavor Campari. Yummy.
Rumphius had bad luck with his original hand-drawn series of six books. They were consumed by fire. He redrew the illustrations from his notes. He sent them to England to be printed. The second batch were destroyed when the ship was sunk by the French Navy. They were lost at sea.
Nearly blind, and still in mourning for his wife and child’s death in the 1647 tsunami, Rumphius set about creating a third copy. The information was considered too valuable to be published at the time. “Herbarium Ambonese” was finally published in 1741, nine years after Rumphius’ death.
How different it is now. Photographs replace hand drawings. Copies saved on the computers are easily replaced. No war is currently sinking ships. Rumphius’ perseverance awes me because I know how much work putting a book together is, even today, when it is relatively easy compared to the 1700s.
Crotons can cause allergic reactions. Wear gloves when working with these plants, but natives also use one as a liquid bandage. They call it dragon’s blood due to its red sap.
Key West is ideal for growing crotons because it is warm. Crotons cannot survive cold weather as their leaves fall off when damaged by low temperatures. They like our sandy, well-drained soil. Humidity is absorbed through their leaves. They don’t mind the salt at all. That is why the Key West Garden Club is offering their newly sprouted ones for sale at the annual garden sale the third Friday and Saturday in November. Crotons do not grow easily from seed, so extraordinary gardener Patti Rodriguez has used cuttings from healthy plants to start new growth.
She starts with an 18-inch cutting. Then she strips the outer layer of bark off the bottom 3 to 4 inches to expose the second layer. This layer supports the flow of nutrients through the plant. After dipping that in root tone, she plants it in the pot’s soil and waits for new roots to sprout before transplanting it to a more permanent site.
Be sure you have the space for the full-grown plant as it can grow to be tall and wide. They can be trimmed in the spring to maintain the desired size. A row of these low-care plants makes an excellent hedge that will last for many years.
These and many other exciting plants are also available for sale at the Garden Club at West Martello Fort every Monday from 9 a.m. until noon. Knowledgeable docents will be there to help with your selection process.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. Her books “Plants of Paradise” and award-winning “Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys” and the newest addition, “Sexy Shrubs in Sandy Soil,” can be found at the Garden Club. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For information about plants, visit a compilation of previous columns at http://www.keywestgardenclub.com, Robin’s Columns.