Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ex-Girlfriend / Ex-Boyfriend (Codiaeum variegatum)

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.

The 'Gold-Dust' plants now. I know they don't look all that bad here, but they used to be so much fuller and happier. You'd weep, if I had pictures to show you, which I don't.

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.


Photo credits:
'Gold-Dust,' 'Mrs. Iceton,' and 'Andrew:' my own photos.
'Petra,' or whatever it is if it's not 'Petra:' from photogirl7 at

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.


Anonymous said...

i was seduced by a codiaeum that I got from my mother-in-law. it was part of an assortment of houseplants in one pot. it has the most beautiful red and black and green leaves. sure enough, it started dropping leaves like crazy no matter what I did. I've managed to slow that down a little by extreme babying in a very well-lit south-facing room (light coming from three large south facing windows and one sky light). I'm using a portable heater and a small humidifier which seem to be doing the trick. We'll see if I can keep it up. This is certainly my most challenging plant right now.
Nice blog btw. Came across it from the link you provided on my gardenweb question about your favorite easy houseplants. It's nice to see an intelligent perspective out there. Cheers!

Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ said...

I just want to say that I agree with Jose about your "intelligent perspective."
I think you should write a book because, not only do you have such an insight into plants and related topics, the quality of your writing is great too. You have the whole package! Now don't blush--it's not a compliment, it's a fact!

Pina said...

Mine started to bloom these days! I have croton Mrs. Iceton. What a surprise! It's been in my home for more than 10 years.

Vesna said...

I just bough a "Mammi" this morning. Just couldn't resist it; codiaeums are one of the most beautiful leaf plants I've ever seen. Straight from the bus, I rushed to find this plant on your blog, just to become as plant-terrified as I can get after reading this post. Still, I'm giving it a try; it's actually a baby, cca 30cm tall, so maybe I'll get extra care points for the early start. Coincidentally, I just realized last week that a friend's lovely home tree is actually a croton. The plant's missing all but the 10 or so top leaves, but it has some 3-4 branches and looks really wonderful. So there's another bit of inspiration to try taking care of my "Mamni".;)

Lia said...

Any tips on telling these and Japanese Aucuba apart?
Just discovered your blog. Terrific knowledge and the sense of humour a real bonus. Thanks!

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, I'm not positive about this, since I don't think I've ever seen an Aucuba in person, but I think Codiaeum leaves are smooth, and Aucuba leaves have serrated margins.

Tom said...

Urgh. Mrs. Iceton should be called Evil Temptress. I won't be trying that one ever again.

HannahB said...

Ooo! So pretty! Why can't easy things be this pretty?! Or, maybe I should rephrase that as, why can't I take care of things this pretty? And the answer is I am forgetful and apathetic. But anyway, PRETTY!

HannahB said...

PRETTY! I almost wish I was less forgetful/apathetic about watering things so I could have me a pretty!

erin love said...

thank u so much for the awesome info. i really like how u rated how poisonous these plants are to pets too. i've been online many times looking up plants that are safe for my kitties and dog and i get confused because some say "yes" and some say "no" u seem to know your shit so i'm bookmarking your website for future reference!! thanks again!! erin love

James said...

I have 'Petra' or a similar variety. I started my craze for houseplants a few years ago with a red mangrove (deceased). My petra was one of my earliest houseplants, I bought a little plug one autumn for £1 and potted it up. Over the years I neglected it but it grew slowly and steadily, coping with irregular watering, dry air and a shady window. I am surprised it's near the top of your difficulty list because for me, it's my loyal houseplant along with my kentia. Last summer I watered it more than usual and it exploded in size and colour. Even when I neglected it it looked perfect! I'd urge anyone to give it a try; it really injects a tropical vibe into a room.

mr_subjunctive said...


I've heard the same from other people. If you have a spot the plant likes, and give it consistent care, they seem to be fine. My problem is that there are always new plants coming in, so keeping a croton free of spider mites is beyond my abilities -- even when I'm very careful about checking the new plants first, I still wind up having to fight back mites occasionally.

It's been long enough since my last croton that I might do better with one now, but there are enough other plants out there that it's not high on my list to buy.

Anonymous said...

"Gold Dust" is an Aucuba japonica not a Codiaeum variegatum

mr_subjunctive said...


Both Aucuba japonica and Dracaena surculosa are sometimes called "gold-dust plant;" there is also a Codiaeum variegatum cultivar by the name of 'Gold Dust.'

JP said...

I've had a Codiaeum variegatum 'Petra' for 3-4 years and I can honestly say it has been my most reliable houseplant. I bought it as a tiny 50 pence plug cutting and now it's 2ft high. It's kept in my southwest facing living room and I water it about once a week. It grows steadily throughout the year, even during the dark British winter and will drop 2 leaves per year at the most. Unfortunately a few of weeks ago I went on holiday and didn't water it enough before I left... it didn't show any immediate signs of damage but a week later the crown wilted and it dropped two leaves (they were halfway down the stem, weird) in one go. Within a day it was back to normal, although it does look a bit strange now with a small gap of bare stem halfway down!

Anonymous said...

We actually have Gold Dust growing on the side of the house in a very shady area with no care at all. I thought it was a weed at first but the hubby liked it so we ended up looking it up.

Funny how some plants are hard for some people and easy for others.

R said...

I think the difference is humidity. I see people saying "pounds" and "pence" so that leads me to believe they are in the UK which is a veritable temperate rainforest climate (just without all the trees).
Also, those in muggy Florida have an easy time.
My croton didn't last. I had always said "I'll never get a croton, I don't believe I'll be able to keep it alove" but one day the husband went to the plant store and brought home a huge purple waffle and a "bush on fire" which I have to admit I did think was super cool looking.
The purple waffle is doing great, I even got two of its pinched ends to root (well, four but the two in the other spot in the pot failed randomly for I don't know why) and fill in the front of the pot after it was repotted.
I also said I'd never have a purple waffle. I guess half success with plants I didn't want isn't too bad. And I think I'm quite fond of the purple waffle....we'll see how winter home climate treats our relationship.

atropos_of_nothing said...

The start of my houseplant acquisition went something like, golden pothos - chlorophytum - croton. I know it was at least one of the first five I brought home.
And it's been one of my easier ones? I keep it under artificial lighting, in a corner where the humidifier and grouping keeps the humidity around 70% even in Midwest winters. It starts drooping its leaves when I don't water, but seems to recover quickly enough when it gets what it wants. Spider mites have never been a problem because better living through chemistry; after my first bout with whiteflies, I bought giant jugs of imidacloprid and 3-in-1, and never looked back.
But I do keep knocking it over because it's never been repotted and it has definitely grown. Now, I'm afraid to pot it up XD
How it usually goes is, I see a plant and get infatuated, I buy it, and *then* I look into how difficult it is to keep alive. This is how a $20 breynia cost over $100, after the humidifier and LED T5s get figured in.
But I figure, I rarely bother learning about plants I don't have, so. It is an investment in my education?