As I had a site visit in Bundaberg last week, I set a day aside and visited a few gardens. I had long planned to visit Marge – known locally as the Croton Lady – who I had met in Brisbane many years earlier. I am really glad I finally made it as I learned so much from the visit. As many people had told me, you don’t need a street number as you can spot Marge’s garden immediately – a manicured front garden – and yes crotons, as well as many other plants. Marge’s back garden will blow you away if you love foliage colour.
This garden is a particularly important one as it is one of the largest collections of crotons in Australia and Marge has labeled each of her plants. She has had many experts review the plants and verify these names. She has also compiled an album of named photographs, which assists visitors. It is a popular destination for many local gardening clubs as well as busloads of enthusiasts from further afield, such as Brisbane.
I was particularly keen to record the plants in this collection, and Marge patiently spent a couple of hours going round with me as I photographed and we recorded the names of each plant. After undertaking this exercise, I have since been able to identify many of the crotons I had previously photographed. Now I seem to see croton plants everywhere I look – and yes I do remember many of the names.
Why is it so important to know the names of the plants you may ask? Crotons can be quite variable as a group, from compact to tall; slow to fast growing; and with some that enjoy more shade and others performing better in the sun. Marge has multiple plants of each cultivar planted in different areas of the garden and they vary in size and colour depending on location.
Knowing the name of a particular plant is also important if you want to source specific plants for the garden. For many years you could only buy unnamed crotons at nurseries. This used to drive me mad. As a landscape architect, I like to specify certain plants for a landscape project. Luckily things seem to be changing and most commercially available crotons are labeled these days.
Identifying plants also provides you with an insight into their history. Many of the plants we grow have a recorded history in cultivation of many hundreds of years. In turn they were collected from plants already in cultivation in the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. And yes, the Croton (Codiaeum variegatum) is also a native of Australian! Perhaps some native plant enthusiasts have found some local ornamental cultivars.
Marge encouraged me to come again between March and April when the colour of her plants is most intense. She felt many of the plants weren’t looking too good when I visited. Crotons respond to heat, water and humidity by producing brilliantly coloured foliage. The recent cool, dry and windy weather had resulted in many crotons defoliating and losing some of their colour. I must admit I was still blown away by the colour in this garden as you can see from the images.
Marge’s love affair with crotons began some 40 years ago when she took home a bunch of colourful leafy stems from her daughter’s wedding bouquet. She decided to grow them on and has been going from strength to strength ever since.
Marge loves all crotons. It is hard for her to name a favorite, but she does have a soft spot for ‘Super Petra’, ‘Shirley Temple’, ‘Angel Wings’,’ Red Mona Lisa’, ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Indian Headdress’ .
Marge says the garden was a great salvation when her husband died. They had both enjoyed gardening while he was alive, but the garden has changed quite a lot since then – for one thing, there weren’t quite so many crotons before. There are also many other interesting plants in the garden including Aralias (Polyscias cultivars), Acalyphas (Acalypha wilkesiana cultivars), Caricature Plants (Graptophyllum pictum cultivars) and Pseuderanthemums (Pseuderanthemum carruthersii cultivars).
Crotons are very, very low maintenance plants. This is probably one of the main reasons they are so popular. Once a year, Marge applies blood and bone to her garden. Occasionally she also uses Dynamic Lifter. She also waters the plants during very dry weather.
Crotons suffer from few pests or diseases, particularly if their cultural needs are met. The only pests Marge comes across are White Fly, Fruit Spotting Bug and Mealy Bug.
White Fly – they are found under the new growth but they don’t appear to do any damage. Marge sprays with a systemic pesticide and white oil.
Fruit Spotting Bug – suck the sap from the new shoots, which can be very annoying. Shoots wither and die and the new shoots that grow can become congested and leggy. Bugs can be caught by hand and disposed of.
Mealy Bug – the worst period for infestation seems to be after winter when some varieties defoliate. The Mealy Bug loves this and hides in the dead leaves and can also be found under the healthy leaves. Marge removes dead leaves and sprays with white oil to keep them under control. This also gives the leaves a shine and brings out the colour. Only spray when required.
Marge finds that crotons vary in health and vigor. Some clones are very slow and others very vigorous. Others dislike the cold and defoliate readily (eg ‘Vera’ and ‘Shirley Temple’). She says it is survival of the fittest in her garden.
Marge recommends that when starting out, gardeners should focus on some of the hardier, older cultivars, such as: ‘Norma’, ‘Undulatum’ (‘Piecrust’), ‘Irene Kingsley’, ‘Captain Kidd’ and ‘Vera’.
Coming from tropical areas, crotons love the warmth, moisture and humidity of the tropical and subtropical summer. This is why they do so well in the tropical and subtropical coastal areas of Australia. If you live south of the subtropics (around Ballina on the East Coast), you can still grow crotons. If you live in a warm temperate climate, grow them in warm sheltered areas. I have seen some great specimens in Sydney. Remember that they love warmth and humidity, so extra summer water may be beneficial. In Europe and the northern states of the USA, Crotons are grown in pots outside over the summer months to provide colour and a touch of the exotic. As the weather cools they are moved into the shelter of greenhouses. Here they are watered but only enough to stop the soil drying out.
Marge now propagates her plants from marcots. She is able to produce large plants quickly and finds it easier to propagate this way. Each November (or before Christmas once it is warm), Marge selects branches over pencil thickness in width, and makes 2 cuts around the stem beforethen peeling off the bark between them. She makes up a mixture consisting of peat moss, sphagnum moss and coco peat, mixed up and moistened in a bucket. This is applied around the debarked stem. Then a shopping bag or black rubbish bag cut into strips is wrapped around the stem and secured with twisty ties. Marge finds that new roots are produced within 3 to 4 weeks. She cuts the rooted stems off and pots them up in a semi- shady area under trees.
The plants may look stressed for the first couple of weeks, but within 6 weeks they are well established. Marge often makes her own potting mix but has purchased quality commercial brands and found them very successful. She finds plants respond to a light topdressing of blood and bone. Marge has also undertaken marcotting during the cooler months. While it has been successful, the plants have been slow to produce roots.
Crotons also grow readily from pencil thick cuttings taken over summer. To reduce dehydration, remove the soft young leaves and then all but the top cluster of leaves and cut these in half. Pot up and place in a sheltered, shady location. Many people also grow cuttings simply in a glass of water.
Crotons can often send up branches that are different or a variation on the parent plant and this is where many of our popular plants originate. If you have a croton that produce a branch with different leaves, it may pay to keep an eye on it and once big enough, to take some cuttings. It may turn out to be a great new plant.
Crotons can also be grown from seed. Many gardeners have applied pollen from one outstanding croton to another and produced stunning new plants. While mostly undertaken in Florida (USA), Belgium, England and throughout Asia, Queensland has produced some popular hybrids. Hybridisation was undertaken early last Century in Ipswich as well as Brisbane, Bowen and Cairns. Marge has not done any hybridisation herself, but her plants frequently produce fruit and seed. A croton seedling appeared in her garden and has been named ‘Marge’ by friends. It may turn out to be a great new plant.
After visiting Marge I’ve added some crotons to the ‘want list’. These include ‘Sanderi’, ‘Andreanum’, ‘Tiger Eye’, ‘Rheedii’, ‘Punctatum’ and ‘Undulatum’.
Crotons are going through a massive resurgence in popularity. Let’s face it, they tick all the boxes: they are hardy, colourful, long-lived and very low maintenance. Many people find Crotons gaudy and old fashioned. Often this is more to do with how they are placed and used in a garden. If you find them a little too bright you can always plant some of the or pastel shaded cultivars. You can also mass plant a group of the same cultivar in a strategic area of the garden as a focal planting and coordinate colours with neighbouring plants.
If you are time poor, foliage colour may be the answer and if you live in the warmer part of the world or have a sheltered spot to winter potted plants, Crotons are a great choice for the garden. These long-lived plants are a great investment as they continue to provide pleasure for many decades if not centuries.
Marge hasn’t run out of room for new plants quite yet. The garden now extends onto the neighbouring property, which fortuitously, belongs to her daughter. Currently Marge grows over 120 different cultivars of Croton. She was told that there are some 400 registered cultivars and pointed out ‘I’m not even halfway yet!’ She’s currently on the lookout for ‘Yellow Mrs Iceton’, ‘Twist and Point’, ‘Kentucky’, ‘Dark Ruler Angel Wings’, ‘Caribbean Star’, ‘Glen Roof’, Arrowhead’ and ‘America’ so if you have a spare plant, or new sport, drop one in to her. I’m sure we can help her reach the 200 mark.