Questions on: Croton

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service

Q: I am in college and just purchased a croton. A friend told me to only water it when the soil is dry, but the leaves look waxy and dirty and one of the leaves has a dry patch on it. Is there a way I won't kill it? (e-mail reference)

A: If there is such a thing as a tough houseplant, the croton is it! Your friend is correct in saying that you should water it only when the soil is dry. When you do water, make sure it is sufficient enough so that water flows out of the base of the pot. Allow it to drain for about 30 minutes before dumping the water out of the saucer. You can wash the leaves in the shower every now and then or you can wipe them with a wet cloth.

Q: I was in a store shopping when I noticed three croton plants on a clearance shelf. They were totally dry and looked dead or near death, but I purchased them anyway. After reading some of your posts, I checked just under the bark and it is green. The leaves are still on the plants, but they are dry and crack off very easily. Should I trim off the old leaves or prune them in any way? (e-mail reference)

A: These are some of the toughest houseplants in existence. Keep the soil moderately moist. Eventually, the plant should drop the old, dried leaves and send out some new ones. As for pruning, you may do so to reshape the plants and to remove any branches that are dead. Don't leave any bare stubs. Also, don't try to push the plant by overwatering or fertilizing. Begin a light fertilizing cycle when new growth is observed, but not before.

Q: I hope that you may be able to help me save my son's croton houseplant. He received it from his teacher when he was in kindergarten. He is now in the fourth grade. It was a very small plant when the plant was given to him. The plant grew to about 8 inches and appeared very healthy until a few weeks ago, when it started to lose its bottom leaves. The leaves were dry and brittle when they fell off. Then the same dryness and brittleness began to affect the remaining upper leaves. Today, the last leaf on the top of the plant was so dry and brittle it broke off while I was watering the poor plant. My son is heartbroken. Can the plant be saved? Might cutting it back or repotting it help? Thank you. (Roseglen, N.D.)

A: Having the plant stay vigorous from kindergarten to fourth grade is a good accomplishment, so you or your son must have been doing something right.

Croton houseplants amaze me. They are noted for their fussy environmental requirements, but there is one right at the entryway of the Northland Educators Federal Credit Union that thrives on all kinds of abuse, such as cold drafts from the opening of the main door, undependable light intensity and duration, and when-they-think-about-it watering. Who knows if it has ever been fertilized, repotted or misted! All I can tell you to do is to check the bark on the main stem with your thumbnail and see if the tissue beneath is still green. If it is, there is a chance for recovery. If not, then you might as well dump it and start over. The only thing I can think of to have it succumb after so many years of success is that you or someone has changed the routine or location the plant had adapted to. As I tell them at the credit union, don't change anything because it could kill the plant if they suddenly started taking care of it the right way!

Q: I got a croton as a wedding gift, so it has huge sentimental value. It got too cold, so its leaves are dead and the plant is barely alive (if that). Is there anything I can do? Please let me know what other details may be helpful. (e-mail reference)

A: These are tough plants. If it was not completely frozen, chances are it will start to grow again if given enough time. Place it where it can get lots of light, keep it at room temperature and water it when the soil gets dry, but not before. Do not fertilize the plant until you see some new growth emerging.

Q: I have a croton plant that I had to repot. Now all the leaves are falling off. What is wrong with it? It was all in one pot, but I separated it into three. Should I not have done that? (e-mail reference)

A: Don’t panic. The leaves probably will grow back in a few weeks. These plants often “pout” when they are separated and repotted. Give the plant its normal care. Do not fertilize, and follow your normal watering regime. New leaves should begin emerging in two to four weeks.

Q: I recently purchased a croton plant. I have been researching its needs, but I am not applying my newfound knowledge very well. My croton looks like it is dying. The bottom leaves are falling off, while the other leaves are becoming green instead of multi-colored. I need specific information about how much to water, fertilize, etc. (e-mail reference)

A: There are three things crotons need in abundance. Crotons need bright light to maintain their fiery color, which makes these plants so attractive. They need a high- humidity environment, so you may want to consider a portable humidifier. Crotons also need year-round warmth. They need to be away from cold drafts or defoliation will take place. Young plants should be repotted every two years. Repot as necessary the older, more mature plants in 6-inch or larger pots. Repot in a freely-draining container with porous soil that will facilitate good water movement. Try to keep the media uniformly moist for best results.

Q: We have had a croton in our office for a long time and it seems to be very happy. My manager, who loves plants, brought in a new one to add to our environment. Unfortunately the new plant isn’t so happy. It lost all but three of its gorgeous leaves within four or five days. Other than keeping it moist, I don’t know what to do. Right now it’s a bunch of sticks in a pot. It gets plenty of light from a big bay window and I mist it in the early afternoon. Do you have any advice or know why the leaves fell off? (E-mail reference)

A: The plant is probably going through re-acclimation to a new location. Just keep up what you are doing. Don’t overwater the plant. If the plant is alive, you should start to seen new leaves forming in about three to four weeks.

Q. Can you tell me what kind of plant I have enclosed? The leaves on the bottom keep falling off every other week and it is getting kind of bare. How do I care for it? (Gackle, N.D.)

A. Your plant is a croton, which looks tough with its leathery, colorful leaves but has fussy care requirements.

It needs to be kept away from cool drafts. A dip below 60 F can set it off to dropping leaves. Your sample had brown leaf edges, an indication it may have been chilled, or is in a drafty location.

Mist the leaves in the winter with distilled water to keep humidity up and keep it in a continuously warm location. Water sparingly between now and April, then begin normal liberal waterings. Good luck! These plants are a challenge to grow!

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