About a year ago, I bought a couple of Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold-Dust'. I don't remember why, exactly: we had just cleared off a lot of space in front of the (south-facing) living room window, so maybe the logic was just that I had full sun, therefore, I needed some full-sun plants. I'm pretty sure that I knew that they could be difficult when I bought them. I think I'd even had them before, or something very similar. So I held my breath and crossed my fingers and brought them home.
And then – anticlimax. I moved them up into 4-inch pots (I'd bought them in 3-inch), and after a period of adjustment, during which time I wound up moving them out of the window and next to a pretty intense fluorescent light, they did fine.
Better than fine, actually. They grew pretty steadily, didn't drop any leaves, everything was good.
Then around June things got to the point where they were a little overgrown, and I wanted to condense them. Two 4-inch pots don't take up a lot of room, maybe, but one 6-inch pot takes up even less. Plus they were doing so well already: I could have a really impressive-looking croton on my hands if I combined these, I thought. So I put them together.
And it's been all downhill from there. About two-thirds of the leaves fell off. There were spider mites. New soil meant a new watering cycle, which I couldn't get the hang of: sometimes I would water them when they didn't need it, because I thought they did, and vice-versa. We are only just now beginning to pull out of this, and I'm not positive that the leaf-dropping and name-calling is over yet.
So what happened? Not sure, but it was bad.
Enter Codiaeum variegatum 'Andrew.' Before I worked at the greenhouse I'm in now, I was a customer there, and they got a bunch of these in about a month before I was hired. They were novel, certainly – variegated in the same kind of pattern as some of the other plants in the greenhouse (specifically, there was a resemblance to Ficus benjamina 'Spearmint' and Citrus limon 'Pink Lemonade,' which aren't related to one another, or to Codiaeum variegatum, but which nevertheless all look more like one another than they look like their actual relatives), but with crazy bumpy leaves. It's really just easier to show you a picture:
So but anyway. I was impressed by these being unusual, and so I got one, and then I came back a short time later (the same day?) and got two more, also in 3-inch pots, and I potted the three together into a six-inch pot. And since then? They've dropped a ton of leaves. They've developed spider mites. I've had a tough time getting the watering schedule down. This crisis, unlike with 'Gold-Dust,' is ongoing. I have 'Andrew' in the south-facing living room window, and it's positioned such that I can't actually see the soil, so sometimes I forget to water it, which never makes it happy.
This kind of experience is not all that unusual with crotons, though clearly I'm to blame for some of it. Repotting was, in retrospect, obviously a bad idea, though I'm a little hazy about why. We repot crotons all the time at work without tears and recriminations. But although there's blame to be assigned and accepted and so forth, I'm not really wanting to so much. I think we just need to walk away from one another1 and be done. She needs things I can never give her, like heat and humidity and super-consistent care; I need things from her that she can't give me, like a little co-operation when it comes to repotting, and resistance to spider mites. So it's probably best if we just separate now. Thank god we at least don't have any seedlings to worry about.
On a less whimsical note: crotons are everywhere around here right now (mostly C. variegatum 'Petra,'2 which seems to have been the dominant cultivar for many years), because they're one of very few plants that have autumny-colored leaves, and this is autumn, so, you know, my employer's got a bunch, and the grocery stores around here have a bunch, and some of them are quite nice-looking. But they need heat and humidity, which you're not going to be able to provide in a centrally-heated home in the Upper Midwest for the next six or seven months, and even if you could, they're still one of the favorite meals for spider mites. They need a lot of light in order to maintain their color, they're heavy feeders, they'll drop a lot of leaves if you let them get dry, they're not easily propagated indoors or out3 and all in all they're just really not the right indoor plant for anybody, especially right now. 'Gold-Dust,' my bad experiences notwithstanding, is possibly one of the less demanding varieties, especially if you don't try to repot it when it doesn't want to be repotted. 'Mrs. Iceton,' below, is the cultivar that I wish I could keep but will now never try: I think it's pretty.
It's not that Codiaeum variegatum is impossible to keep indoors. Some people do it for long periods and never have any serious problems. I myself might, after this little hiccup in the relationship, manage to keep both the 'Gold-Dust' and 'Andrew' crotons around for a while, and if we do well enough for long enough, then maybe I'll reconsider getting back together again. Or at least a date. But if they don’t straighten out pretty soon, I'm not buying any more, ever. There are plenty of other plants out there that are a lot less trouble.4
UPDATE: See also a picture of another weird cultivar with extremely narrow leaves at this post from December 2008.
'Gold-Dust,' 'Mrs. Iceton,' and 'Andrew:' my own photos.
'Petra,' or whatever it is if it's not 'Petra:' from photogirl7 at flickr.com
1 (The "walking away," obviously, would be figurative in the plant's case.)
2 (I think it's 'Petra.' I always expect 'Petra' to be darker, more green and purple. It's possible that the one everybody has, which is also the one in the picture, is of a new cultivar with more autumnal coloring. Who can keep up with all the new cultivars anyway?)
3 (in my experience; some of the books say they're easy to propagate from cuttings)
4 And only a couple that are more trouble.