By Matt Gibson and Erin Marissa Russell
Croton plants are tropical houseplants known for their colorful variegated foliage. Croton leaves come in a wide variety of colors, color combinations, leaf shapes, and leaf sizes depending on the variety, and are commonly found covered in green, yellow, orange, and red splashes, splotches, stripes and streaks. You can also find croton varieties with shades of brown, purple, copper, pink, and ivory.
Many cultivars have two or more foliar colors on display, and some types even slowly change color over the course of the growing season, while others boast three or four different colors at a time. The name “croton” is commonly used as a generic term referencing all of the different varieties that exist within the genus.
Commonly grown as houseplants, croton plants have gotten a bad reputation for being very particular about their growing environment, as well as needy when it comes to care and maintenance. However, if you learn how to provide the proper environment and care, croton plants are actually quite resilient and hard to kill. Once you know the preferences and needs of these tropical beauties, croton plants become rather easy to grow and maintain.
Crotons thrive outdoors in warm, temperate climates but will not abide by cold weather conditions. If you are growing croton plants, you need to make sure that the temperature they are exposed to stays above 60 degrees Fahrenheit at all times throughout the whole year. Crotons prefer humidity but will tolerate slightly arid conditions as well.
Warm, humid, tropical conditions are preferred, and climates like those in Florida are ideal for outdoor croton plants. If you live in a region where the weather gets cold for several months each year, it is best to grow croton plants inside where you can decide the exact temperature that your plants are exposed to. Croton plants don’t typically flower when they are grown indoors, but the blooms of most croton varieties are insignificant, especially compared to their stunning foliar display.
Varieties of Croton Plants
There are hundreds of different varieties of croton plants, and the differences between the various varieties are immense. Various cultivars display a wide range of colors, color combos, leaf shapes, and plant sizes. With so many varieties to choose from, you could grow a different cultivar of croton every year of your life and you would never run out of options to choose from.
Though the expansive variety is exciting, choosing which croton to grow can be intimidating. We made the task slightly less menacing by narrowing the choices down to our favorite 20 selections. It’s still a long list, but we couldn’t leave any of these cultivars off and sleep soundly. Here are our favorites:
Andrew Croton – A popular variety of croton, the Andrew variety displays long, narrow deep green leaves with cream-colored streaks and edges. When grown outdoors, it can reach up to five feet tall. When grown as a houseplant, it is generally around three feet tall.
Banana Croton – Reaching three to four feet tall at maturity, the striking banana croton cultivar is commonly grown indoors as a houseplant. Bright green lance-shaped leaves are highlighted by splotches of banana yellow.
Bush on Fire Croton – This stunning three to five foot variety has dark green leathery leaves with splashes of fiery pink, orange, yellow, and red. It really looks like it is on fire with its vibrant coloration. Even more appealing, the leaves change color as the plant ages.
Chocolate Caricature Jamacian Croton – A truly interesting looking plant, the chocolate caricature Jamacian croton boasts magenta stems with chocolate brownish-green leaves highlighted with splashes of pink and bronze on the interior of the upper side of the leaves.
Dreadlocks Croton – As its name suggests, the dreadlocks croton has twisted, dreadlock-like dark green leaves that change color as the plant ages, slowly morphing into various shades of red, yellow, and orange.
Eleanor Roosevelt Croton – The long, narrow leaves of the Eleanor Roosevelt croton variety change from green to purple as the plant ages, all the while highlighted with golden yellow splashes.
Excellent Croton – The botanical name for this croton variety is C. variegatum var. pictum, commonly called the excellent croton, and its common name doesn’t exaggerate its greatness. Growing three to six feet tall in containers indoors, the excellent croton shows off an impressive array of colored leaves, flaunting shades of green, purple, yellow, orange, red, and bronze simultaneously. This is a fabulously showy plant.
Florida Select Croton – This cultivar has showy, smooth, green, velvet-like leaves with orange, red, purple, and yellow veining. The leaves change from a light green, to a medium green, to a dark green, and finally to a nearly black shade of green as the plant ages.
Gold Dust Croton – A popular outdoor variety that is also well-suited to indoor growing, the Gold Dust cultivar needs full exposure to bright, indirect light. Well named, its green leaves are sprinkled with small but bright golden yellow spotting.
Gold Star Croton – This dwarf-size, tree-shaped croton grows to only 20 inches high, sporting narrow, linear-shaped green leaves decorated with bright yellow spots.
Lauren’s Rainbow Croton – An excellent cultivar for indoor growing due to its humidity and drought tolerance, Lauren’s croton displays long, narrow, yellow, green, and dark-purple leaves. Her rainbow croton grows to four to five-foot tall and wide.
Magnificent Croton – This confidently-named croton variety lives up to its name. A compact, bushy plant that grows up to seven feet high outdoors but only three to four feet high indoors, the magnificent croton has large, deep-green leaves that are freckled with yellow, pink, orange, purple, and red dots. One of the few full-shade tolerant croton varieties.
Mammy Croton – Mammy croton has rounded, elongated, twisted leaves in earth tone shades of green, red, maroon, orange, and golden yellow.
Mother and Daughter Croton – A truly unique-looking croton variety, the mother and daughter cultivar sports dark green, dark red and purple leaves splashed with yellow and ivory which taper off to a point like they are holding onto a small leaflet.
Mrs. Iceton Croton – The Mrs. Iceton variety is a gorgeous croton cultivar. Its smooth light green leaves turn different autumnal shades of orange, pink, red, and yellow, eventually losing nearly all of its original green tint.
Oakleaf Croton – Oakleaf croton has oak leaf-shaped foliage that is dark green or bronze. The leaves are highlighted with yellow, red, and orange veinage.
Petra Croton – One of the most popular varieties of croton, the three to six-foot Petra variety displays oval, dark-green leaves with eye-catching veins in bright shades of pink, red, orange, and yellow.
Picasso’s Paintbrush Croton – If Picasso painted this croton variety, he did it with a perfect pastel palette. The variety’s thin leaves and short height make it look more like an ornamental grass than a tropical groundcover.
Red Iceton Croton – One of the most eye-catching varieties, the red iceton croton displays dark yellow leaves that each gradually change to bright pink, then dark red. It’s large leaves look extra stunning on it’s seven to eight foot frame.
Zanzibar Croton – This cultivar looks like a multicolored ornamental grass in shades of red, green, orange, purple, pink, and yellow. Absolutely glorious.
Growing Conditions for Croton Plants
Croton plants require bright, indirect light to grow healthily. Unfiltered direct sunlight can bleach out their intricate designs and vibrant colors, and can even damage leaf tissue. Croton plants thrive in dappled sunlight. Though shade is a must, croton plants still need a bright location, as the brightness and vividness of their lavish colors require a bright source of light. Croton plants like a nutrient rich, well-draining soil with a neutral pH. A well-draining commercial potting soil is perfect for the croton plant’s needs.
If you are growing your croton plants indoors, keep the room they are in over 60 degrees F and keep the plant sheltered from cold drafts and overly dry conditions.
Humidity, as well as bright light, are essential components in bringing out the plant’s most vibrant foliar colors. If the humidity is too low, the plant may not only lose some of its coloration, but it could also potentially drop some of its leaves entirely.
Keep humidity levels between 40 to 80 percent. If you are finding it hard to maintain high humidity levels in your house, try running a humidifier in the room where you keep your croton plants, or set a humidity tray under the croton plants. A humidity tray can be made by filling a shallow dish with pebbles and water, keeping the water level under the top of the pebbles so that the plant container sits on the pebble tops without touching the water line. Grouping your croton plants together with other plants can also help maintain humidity levels.
How to Plant Croton Plants
Use a container that is somewhat heavy when planting croton plants, as they are relatively tall plants with an upright growth habit. Croton plants are known to get rather top heavy, so you want to select a container that won’t tip over very easily once the plant becomes full size. Plant croton plants in a standard, well-draining potting mix and keep the substrate slightly moist, but never soggy, or wet.
In warm, humid climates, croton can be grown in the ground or in containers outdoors to add an exotic splash of tropical color to your landscape. The versatile plants work equally well in containers or next to your favorite annuals in your garden beds. If you live in an area where temperatures drop below 50 degrees F, you will need to keep them in containers so that they can be brought indoors during cold spells. Crotons do not grow very well from seeds, but multiplying your croton plants by taking cuttings of existing plants is quite easy. For more information on how to take and root cuttings from your crotons, refer to the How to Propagate section below.
Care for Croton Plants
Keep croton plants in a bright spot with indirect, filtered sun, like a well-lit window facing the east, south, or west. If it is not getting ample light, its newly-developing leaves will be muted in color. Keep the soil slightly but evenly moist but let it dry out briefly between irrigation. Mist the plant’s leaves with a spray bottle once per week if the humidity level in your home is insufficient. Low humidity levels make the plant more susceptible to spider mites.
Croton leaves get covered in dust rather easily. Occasionally clean the leaves off with a moist towelette or cloth to keep them clean. Fertilize in the spring and summer with either a slow-release or liquid fertilizer. Repot your croton plants in the spring whenever needed using a pot that is one size bigger than the previous container.
Line the bottom of the new container with one or two inches of a damp, peat-based potting soil. Turn the planter over and carefully slide the plant out of the original container. Set the plant into the new planter and fill up the container with new potting soil. Irrigate well to make the potting mix settle and add a little more potting soil if necessary to bring the substrate up to one inch below the rim of the planter.
Croton plants like to be trimmed occasionally. If they become leggy, prune the stems back hard near the start of its active season and move the plant outdoors. Pruned crotons should begin to regrow from the cut portion immediately. Brightly colored foliage is highly dependent on the amount of light the plant gets, so don’t avoid giving your croton plenty of filtered, ever-moving sunlight exposure.
How to Propagate Croton Plants
The simplest way to propagate crotons is with a stem cutting. It makes sense to take your cuttings when you’re pruning crotons anyway. Choose sections four to six inches long, using clean, sterilized shears to snip below a leaf nodule (the bump where leaves emerge from the stem). Strip off the leaves from the bottom of the cutting, leaving three to five at the top. Dip the cut end into rooting hormone for best results, then lay the cutting on newspaper until any sap has dried.
Plant it in damp sand or a mixture of peat moss and perlite, adding a plastic bag over the top of the container for a greenhouse effect. Water the cutting consistently to keep it evenly moist, and store it somewhere that stays above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). Roots should develop within the next month.
You can also propagate crotons using air layering and petiole rooting, but these are not as simple as stem cuttings, nor are they likely to be as successful. Growing crotons from seeds is not usually pursued as the new plants won’t resemble the parents like the cuttings will.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Croton Plants
Crotons generally don’t have problems with pests and diseases. When gardeners of crotons do experience challenges, they’re most likely to face one of the issues we’ve listed below. Many of the pests that infest croton plants can be treated by simply brushing the plant’s foliage with a cotton ball that’s been soaked in rubbing alcohol every once in a while.
Still, gardeners who cultivate crotons should familiarize themselves with the symptoms of the insects and diseases we’ve listed here so they will notice a problem if one rears its head. We’ve also detailed exactly how to prevent and treat each potential type of illness or infestation.
Anthracnose: Anthracnose diseases are caused by several fungal pathogens that all get the same moniker because they share very similar symptoms and use the same treatments. At the outside, anthracnose causes irregular discoloration on leaves, turning spots yellow, brown, or black. The spots can expand and combine until large areas are covered, turning darker in the process.
One way to prevent anthracnose is cleaning up the ground in your garden to remove leaf litter and plant debris, which can house the fungi over the winter. Watering plants at their base instead of splashing the moisture on their leaves can also help reduce risk of anthracnose.
If you see symptoms of anthracnose on your plants, you can use clean, sterilized shears to snip off those areas and minimize the disease’s spread. It’s also a good practice to quarantine any symptomatic plants so they can’t pass the illness to their neighbors. Fungicide can be an effective treatment, but in severe cases, it may be best to remove and dispose of sick plants to save the rest of the garden. Remember not to use diseased plant tissue in your compost so you don’t re-introduce the disease when the compost is utilized. For more details, read our article Guide to Anthracnose Fungal Disease.
Caterpillars: Most gardeners can identify the damage of caterpillars in the garden, but if you’ve been lucky enough not to see much of it, look for fairly large holes with irregular edges. They’re often made on the outer edges of plant leaves. Frequently, you can find the caterpillars themselves still on the plant or napping in the shade of their leaves. If the damage bothers you, you can dispatch caterpillars with a good squish or drop them into a bowl of soapy water to drown them. However, some caterpillars become beneficial pollinators that aren’t a threat to plants once they go through their metamorphosis.
Some gardeners may prefer to use something more defensive than offensive, like insect barrier fabric or diatomaceous earth, also called DE. A border of DE around a plant prevents caterpillar damage because their soft bodies are damaged when they crawl across it, so they’ll avoid the area where it’s been sprinkled. For more details, read our article 8 Effective Ways to Get Rid of Caterpillars in the Garden.
Mealybugs: Mealybugs are tiny, flightless, and fluffy, and they vary in color from white to cream or brown. Plants where mealybugs are feeding may have yellowed or curled foliage. You may also see a clear, tacky material called ”honeydew” on the surfaces of plants frequented by mealybugs. Honeydew also attracts ants and can lead to the development of sooty mold fungus.
Fight back against mealybugs with predatory insects like mealybug destroyers, ladybugs, or lacewings. You can also spray plants with a water and dish soap solution to keep mealybugs at bay. Other options include neem oil and horticultural oils, but use these carefully and only when needed, because they are dangerous for beneficial insects as well. For more details, read our article How to Fight Mealybugs.
Root Rot: Root rot develops where plants are growing in environments that stay too wet, either because they’re overhydrated from irrigation or rain or because the area doesn’t drain well enough. To check for root rot, gently pull up the plant and inspect its root system for changes in color or texture. Root rot turns the roots dark and squishy or slimy. Where you see this kind of damage, use clean, sterilized garden shears to cut those portions of the roots away. If the root system is still wet, lay your plant out on newspapers where it will be in the sunlight so it can dry out before you replant it.
Overcoming root rot requires that you address the excess moisture as well in order for the treatment to be successful. Avoid watering plants from above and instead target the base of the plant. You can also start checking to make sure it’s time for more moisture before you hydrate your plants by sticking a finger into the soil near their roots. If the ground feels wet or bits of dirt cling to your skin, it’s not yet time to water again. Plants in containers may need a new soil medium that offers more drainage or might require being transplanted into a pot with more drainage holes (or larger ones). For more details, read our article How to Fight Stem and Root Rot.
Scale: It’s easy to overlook a scale infestation if you don’t know just what to look for. The tiny insects have armored shells that make them look more like bumps along the stems and branches of plants than bugs—and they’re normally motionless once they find a spot they like. Scales can be between an eighth of an inch to half an inch long and come in shades of gray, green, brown, and black. Where scales are living, you’ll find the substance they secrete called “honeydew,” a clear, sticky film that attracts ants and can cause sooty mold fungus.
If just a few scale insects are scattered on your plants, simply scrape them off with a scrub brush, clean and sterile garden tool, or even a twig free from signs of disease. If there are too many scale insects on your plants for this approach to work, you can prune away the areas where you see scale. You can treat scale by releasing their predators in your garden, which include parasitic wasp, lacewings, or lady beetles.
Neem oil will discourage their feeding and keep new scale bugs from moving in, but it also works against beneficial bugs, so use it with caution and use it sparingly. You can make a homemade neem oil spray out of a liter of warm water, four or five drops of dish soap, and a teaspoon of neem oil, and use it on plants twice each week. Horticultural oils work well on severe cases of infestation but are also detrimental to beneficial bugs. For more details, read our article How to Control Scale Insects.
Spider Mites: Spider mites are such tiny little spiders that to our vision, they appear to be moving red or white dots. Where spider mites feed, you’ll find spots of yellow, tan, or white on plant foliage along with webbing on the underside of leaves. If you see this webbing on your plants, remove it—not only will doing so inhibit the spider mites’ ability to travel, you’ll also clear the way for treatments to reach the spider mites. As damage progresses, plants may develop spots and streaks, or foliage might change its color, shrink, or fall from the plant. Infestations that go untreated can eventually be fatal.
As soon as you notice a plant is infested with spider mites, quarantine the plant to stop their spread. You can knock the spider mites right off your plants with a squirt of water from the garden hose, but this approach requires a good bit of repetition before it will work. You can also defend against spider mites by purchasing predatory mites or ladybugs from a nursery, garden center, or online supplier and releasing them near the infested plants. Treatments using neem oil, insecticidal oil, horticultural oil, or miticide are effective against spider mites but will also cut the population of your garden’s beneficial insects. For more details, read our article How to Fight Spider Mites.
Thrips: Tiny thrip insects come in a spectrum of colors that ranges from yellow to black. The thrips like to hide deep in the crevices between leaves at the base of plants or where leaves meet the stem, so finding them may require some exploration. They’re often cloaked inside the petals of a bud or at the base of a flower. You may have to pull open a few flowers to determine whether or not your problem is thrips. Damaged flower sacs inside of unopened buds are a sure sign of thrips.
In addition to sucking the liquid out of plant cells as they feed, thrips can carry plant viruses and help them spread from plant to plant. However, not all thrips are a threat, and the ones that don’t damage plants actually benefit the garden by feeding on pest insects. That’s why the mere presence of thrips shouldn’t signal you to start a treatment plan, but the presence of thrips paired with signs of damage should.
Damage from thrips looks like this: wilted leaves, spots or streaks on foliage that may be chevron-shaped, alternating light and dark circles that gradually expand, or patches of necrotic tissue. Thrips tend to feast on the most succulent portions of the plant, so watch for damage on leaves that have just unfurled, open flowers, grains of pollen and pollen sacs, or buds. Where thrips are feeding, plants first turn dull, then become dried out and become washed out, with a flecked, bleached look. Thrips damage is often paired with frass, the term for their droppings, which look like tiny, dark fragments or little shavings of dry, bleached plant tissue.
You can stave off thrips by placing a camphor tablet or bathroom deodorizer every so often among vulnerable plants. You can also deploy predatory insects, such as pirate bugs, Orius nymphs, syrphid fly larvae, lacewings, or banded wing thrips. Predaceous mites are predators of thrips larvae but not adult thrips. A product called Nemasys Fruit and Vegetable Protection consists of a variety of nematodes that feed on thrips. Insecticidal soap is an especially good way to keep thrips off your houseplants, and neem oil will also keep them at bay, though it also has negative effects on beneficial insects. For more details, read our article How to Fight Thrips.
How to Harvest Croton Plants
The leaves of croton plants commonly appear in professional flower arrangements. You can add them to your own as well. Here’s how to harvest croton leaves for cut floral arrangements just like the florists do.
Pinch the bottom of the leaf and twist, so the leaf detaches at the base of the petiole (where the leaf meets the stem). If you have many leaves and want to keep them neat, you can stack them and use a rubber band to secure the stack. Be careful not to allow the sap of leaves that have just come off the plant to drip onto furniture, floors, or anything you don’t want to be stained.
How to Store Croton Plants
Because croton plants are tropical, gardeners in many zones will need to relocate or store them during colder seasons to save them from the stress and damage that come along with the cold. Crotons begin to sustain damage from the cold when temperatures get colder than about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). In fairly temperate areas like the southern United States, croton plants that grow outdoors can simply be covered with frost fleece, a tarp, or a similar covering to keep them safe from frost.
Where the weather tends to get colder, more protective measures against winter cold are advised, such as moving crotons indoors. When you’re choosing an indoor location to store your crotons, select a space that gets plenty of bright light that’s indirect or dappled. Your plants will need plenty of sunshine, but keep in mind that they don’t like to be in direct sunlight. To satisfy their craving for humidity, you can either mist the plants with water from a spray bottle every few days or use a humidifier in the room where crotons are kept.
Croton plants are the perfect way to add a tropical flair to your home decor or outdoor landscape. Once you start growing croton, you will never stop trying out different varieties. You owe it to yourself to see these plants change color first hand.
Croton plants are toxic to both humans and pets. All parts of the croton plant are poisonous, especially the seeds and the sap. Ingesting minimal amounts of the croton plant can cause humans to have a burning, or stinging sensation in their mouths, and can cause humans to drool excessively. Ingesting large quantities of croton can cause significant gastrointestinal distress, including upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Ingesting the sap-filled seed pod can cause severe stomach pain, irregular heartbeat, and even death. So, be sure to keep your croton plants in a location that is well out of the reach of infants or curious pets.
When the plant is damaged, it secretes a milky-colored sap that can stain the skin and cause skin irritation. So, whenever you are handling croton plants, always wear protective gloves, especially when removing leaves, pruning, or taking cuttings for propagation. Anytime the plant is damaged, the milky sap will be present, so don’t forget to wear gloves when cultivating croton. If you suspect that your pet has ingested croton plants, especially if they are showing symptoms of croton poisoning, such as extreme lethargy and excessive vomiting, take them to the veterinarian immediately. Pets that have consumed any part of the croton plant may become tired, irritable, or nauseated. Croton plants are especially attractive to pets and young children due to their large, brightly colored leaves, so be sure to keep them in locations that are well out of the reach of children, and out of areas that are commonly accessed by household pets.