Garden Detective

Can this tropical beauty survive Sacramento?

Native to the Pacific Islands, colorful crotons also can feel at home in Sacramento. But they’ll need frost protection.
Native to the Pacific Islands, colorful crotons also can feel at home in Sacramento. But they’ll need frost protection. Bee file photo

Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.

Q: Can the beautiful multicolored crotons grow outside here in Sacramento?

Chere Schoning, Sacramento

Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: Yes – with an asterisk. According to tropical plant experts, croton (Codiaeum variegatum) can tolerate conditions in USDA plant hardiness zone 9b, which includes Sacramento (but not the nearby foothills). Zone 9b plants can take a tiny bit of freezing weather, with nights dipping down to 25 to 30 degrees F at the coldest. Most citrus trees are zone 9b plants.

Likewise, croton can take a little bit of that chilly weather, but not much. It prefers to stay reliably above 50 degrees. When exposed to prolonged cold, it tends to lose those pretty leaves.

If there’s a frost warning, they’ll need protection such as a frost blanket. Although some of its leaves may turn black from frost damage, croton usually bounce back OK with a little pruning to remove burnt leaves or mushy stems. If heavily damaged, they may grow back from the roots. When pruning, wear gloves; croton stems and leaves contain a white sap that can cause skin irritation.

A beautiful tropical plant known for its colorful foliage, croton is native to the Pacific Islands, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia. Hundreds of cultivars are now available, with variegated leaves in green, white, purple, orange, yellow, red or pink.

In Hawaii and other tropical regions, croton is often used as a hedge or specimen plant, growing up to 6 feet tall. In California, they tend to stay smaller due to our somewhat colder climate. They prefer full sun but also like filtered sun or partial shade.

In Northern California, most tropical plant experts recommend growing crotons in pots instead of directly in the ground, so this tropical beauty can be moved indoors (or inside the garage) when frost threatens. They also benefit from growing close to a wall or the house where radiated heat can keep them warmer.

Some gardeners treat croton as an annual, not worrying about frost but enjoying their rainbow-hued leaves while they last.

Croton makes an attractive indoor plant, too. They need bright light to look their best, preferably close to a sunny window.

The Bee’s Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and lifelong gardener;, 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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