When croton (Codiaeum variegatum) was introduced into the Lowcountry many years ago, I assumed that these outrageously colorful plants would run a short-lived course and then disappear. This is because gardeners seem to suffer from some sort of horticultural attention deficient disorder and, as a result, flit from one botanical fad to the next.
However, a lot of Charleston gardeners continue to replant croton each spring and eventually end up in yet another garden design rut. Please, no more croton commingled with bright orange Chinese hibiscus or—worse yet—snuggled next to a couple of vinca.
Poor croton. Like many other plants (privet and Japanese yew come to mind), it’s easy to turn them horticultural clichés. But just when I was about throw in the trowel over croton, I discovered a delightful ensemble of this tropical plant in a garden on James Island. Instead of mixing it with additional color, this croton was allowed to compliment a swath of established dark green shrubbery. Doing so made green hues, as well as textures, come alive. Plus, it gave croton the chance to become a point of interest instead of a gaudy distraction.
No matter my opinion on the frequent ill treatment of croton, I’ve always wanted to see it in its full glory. My recent trip to Cuba finally afforded me this opportunity.
Grown as an annual in USDA Hardiness Zones lower than 10b in the US—because the first frost promptly turns it to toast—the croton we know never grows much taller than 3 feet, perhaps 5 if you’re lucky. But because this Indian and Malaysian native loves year-round megadoses of heat and humidity, it feels at home in the southern regions of Florida and Cuba where it’s not uncommon to see 12-feet tall specimens. But guess what? Croton is shrub du jour in Havana and is rarely given much design consideration. It looks just as silly as it does at home.
But with that said, there is nothing more spectacular than coming upon mass of yellow, green, orange and burgundy leaved croton growing with seemingly wild abandon on a steep Cuban hillside.
The above photos were taken at the Soroas Orchid Garden, which is situated in Cuba’s most western province, Pinar del Río.
Text and photos are copyrighted by PJ Gartin; all rights reserved.