Codiaeum variegatum

by Helen Curran

Codiaeum (pronounced code-e-A-um) is though to come from the word Codebo which is the Malaysian term for 'the origcroton 1inal species'.  It is a member of the Euphorbia family.  A Dutch botanist by name of G.E. Rumphius is the first botanist to report extensively finding crotons.  He discovered 9 varieties of crotons on the Mollucan Island of Amboina between 1653 and 1686; he also contributed the first general knowledge about the genus.  It was Rumphius who recognised codiaeums as a separate category of plants.  On many of these Molluca Islands, 'Viti' (also known by the name 'Mollucanum') grows naturally as undergrowth in the forest.   It is though that this is the original form from which new varieties have evolved, through mutation and cross pollination and dispersal by natives to other island in the South Pacific.  As the crotons were scattered by the natives, they continued the process of evolution and differentiation through mutation and also by cross pollination of their flowers by ants.  The dispersion by the natives of this genetically unstable plant has resulted in a continuing development of new varieties, from the different geographical locations.  Now, this genud includes approximately 15 species of trees and shrubs from Southeast Asia, Indomalaysia and tcroton 2he Pacific Islands.
The nation of Indonesia holds crotons in affection and high esteem, and their botanical gardens regard them almost worshipfully.  Their chief use was as decorative adornments in festivals and they are often used as cemetery landscaping plants, especially on the island of Java; many Indonesians believe that crotons make a cemetery look friendlier.  Other historical observations reflect that in both the Pacific Island and the Malay Peninsula natives have long observed a custom of crowning persons whom they wish to honor with wreaths made from leaves of crotons.

In the last century, mother nature was given a hand in developing new varieties, with the breeding of crotons to bring out different characteristics.  This began in America in the 1920's with the focus on increasing the leaf size, intensifying the colours and reducing the distance between the leaves.  In the 1950's croton lovers in Thailand succeeded in coming up with an array of entirely new and different style of crotons.  The new types were distinctive in that they are miniature and only reach a height of around a metre with more intense colour especially the red coloured ones.  In the 1970's, hybrids were introduced from Europe which were more adaptable to the drier atmosphere of indoors and able to hcroton 3old their colour in the lower light conditions.  Crotons available in nurseries today are the result of hybridization.
Crotons are grown for their leaves, the flowers are considered to be insignificant.  The leaves come in a range of colours, ranging from almost pure white to light and deep yellow, orange, pink, red and crimson in the most charming hues.  The leaves of crotons can be broad, narrow or strap like and the shape can be oak leaf, semi oak leaf, spiral leaf, recurved or an interrupted leaf where the leaf blade stops but the midrib continues for an inch or so and then the leaf blade begins again.  The leaf size is dependent on the amount of sun received, as too much hot sun shrinks the leaves, resulting in a dwarfing of the foliage.
Croton colour is stimulated by the sun's rays and the amount and intensity of sunlight largely determines the degree of colour on the leaves.  Those grown in the full sun will have the colours developing more quickly and those same colours can fade sooner.
Growing crotons in semi shade gives a variegation of colours ranging from delicate pastels to deep tones without the fading that can be seen in crotons grown in full sun.  Where the sun touches the leaves unevenly, as in dapples sun, the colours are produced in irregular shaped patches of colour in varying shades.  This staggered colour development is striking croton 4when it appears in dappled patches or blotches.
I grow my crotons in various amounts of sunlight and would have to agree, mine growing in filtered, dappled sunlight or semi shade have the most intense colour and hold it, while those growing in the hot afternoon sun have the colour bleached out of their leaves by the hot sun.
Crotons are known for being difficult to grow; it took me quite some time with deaths along the way to work out what I was doing wrong.  I could successfully grow them through summer, autumn and winter but would lose them in late winter or spring.  Initially I thought they needed more water, so I watered them only to have them die within a few hours.  After trial and error I realised that the are more susceptible to over watering at this time of year and now keep them on the drier side.
Crotons like regular moisture and humidity when hot, and are tolerant of dry conditions in winter.  A well drained soil is essential and they prefer a fertile, humus rich acidic soil.  Fertilising is essential to bring out the leaf colour, use a fertiliser with a higher amount of potassium or alternatively use of potash twice a year to bring out the colours.
Some of the newest crotons to become available in nurseries are the 'Colours of Africa' range, these are a favourite of mine as the underside of the leaves are as colourful as the tops of the leaves.  I grow these along the edge of walls where the undersides of the leaves are still visible
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