Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, May 14, 1999

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
This croton plant grows at Foster Botanical Garden.Interesting
leaf shapes and color tones make it an attractive hedge plant.
There are 150 varieties of croton grown in warm climates
around the world.

Colorful crotons
easy to grow

MARIE Neal, author of "Gardens of Hawaii," and long considered the guru of tropical gardening, has this to say about the croton. "The croton (not the true Croton) is a common hedge plant and ornamental shrub in Hawaii." There is no further reference to the genuine article, but she does add that the young growth is savored as fodder by buffaloes, in case you were wondering what to feed yours.

A team of botanists has been working on a revision of Marie's opus for a very long time, with publication dates regularly announced and then withdrawn.

Anyway, whatever the true Croton with a capital C is, the faux croton (lowercase) seems to be enjoying a new fling of popularity. The brightly colored foliage and the interesting leaf shapes make it an attractive hedge, foundation planting or a specimen plant among an otherwise green garden. There are literally hundreds of different foliage forms and color patterns existing in the wild, and new varieties show up regularly from natural cross-pollination.

And hybridizers have propagated another hundred forms.

The leaf colors include splashes of green, red, pink, yellow, orange, lavender and black in patches or blends.

The leaf shapes vary from oval to blade shaped, flat or twisted, solid or deeply cut.

The plants are large, but seldom grow to more than 15 feet and can be controlled by tip pruning to limit their height and promote bushy growth. When fast-growing varieties of croton become 4 to 5 feet high, they begin to lose their lower leaves, particularly if they aren't getting enough water. When this happens, the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture recommends pruning them to within one foot of the ground and then fertilizing and watering thoroughly. This will cause horizontal drooping branches to form. When pruning hedges they suggest cutting each branch individually some distance below the desired height rather than using hedge shears.

The university recommends two cupfuls of a balanced fertilizer such as a 10-6-6 formula, for each mature plant, well-watered into the soil about every four months. 'In many island gardens, spraying the leaves with liquid fertilizers, applied according to the manufacturer's instructions, will help considerably to rejuvenate neglected crotons. The presence of trace minerals, particularly magnesium, zinc and copper, is thought to be important for good leaf color, a circular suggests.

Crotons are native to Indonesia, Fiji and Australia, and the leaves are frequently used in the South Pacific as head decorations in ceremonial rites. They became popular as house plants in the eastern United States at the time of the Civil War, but because they drop their leaves in low humidity and insufficient light, growers lost interest. Crotons were later brought to Hawaii where they have thrived.

To grow crotons successfully, you need bright sunlight all year to maintain the leaf colors, protection from salt and hot dry winds, and lots of water. They require light, well-drained soil with a generous supply of organic material such as compost.

Crotons root easily and hedges are commonly propagated by stem cuttings. Cut large woody branches up to 1 inch in diameter and trim off all but the top five leaves. Then select a permanent location for the cuttings and shove the stems 4 inches into the loose, fertilized soil. Keep the soil damp but not soggy for the first three weeks.

For smaller plants, take stem cuttings 6 to 12 inches long from green wood. Leave the cuttings overnight with their stems in water and dip them into a root hormone before placing them into a pot of Perlite, Vermiculite or simply sand. If you keep the planting medium continually damp, roots should appear in about a month.

It's a hardy plant and not particularly prone to insect infestations or diseases. Malathion will get rid of scale, and diazanon will control thrips and mealybugs. Periodically, croton caterpillars show up to lunch on the leaves and are a serious pest while they're around, but they tend to drift off when the weather gets warm.

While there are more than 150 varieties of croton grown in warm climates around the world, the University of Hawaii has chosen these cultivars as among the most attractive in the islands:

Bullet Indian Blanket -- a medium sized simple leaf with a color pattern of a single off-center blotch of bright red-orange on a black background.

Bullet Stoplight -- Long narrow drooping leaves in bright clear colors of red, green and yellow.

Bullet Van Buren -- Small leaves with midrib and veins broadly striped in clear yellow on a green background.

Bullet Reedii -- Large thick leaves with a unique crinkled texture in bright pink and light green.

Finally, because of croton's brilliant coloring, groupings of the same kind of plant are more effective than a little of this and a little of that.

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

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Evergreen by Lois Taylor, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu 96802.
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