The next time you come across a Florida landscape photo from the '40s or '50s, especially from the Miami area, keep your eye out for crotons. The plant, which is known for its dazzling display of yellow, red and orange against a background of glossy emerald green, has brightened South Florida landscapes for almost 120 years.
This native of the Indonesian Spice Islands received its scientific name of Codiaeum variegatum in 1660. (Technically, the croton is not a croton but a codiaeum, but that's another story.) First introduced to America in the 1870s by the Henry A. Dreer seed and florist business in Philadelphia, the croton quickly made its way to Florida, where it was propagated and sold for decades by the Reasoner family of Bradenton and Palmetto, who helped pioneer the hoticulture business in Florida in the late 1880s.
In Central and South Florida, crotons have ebbed and flowed in popularity. "Crotons were very popular in the '20s and '30s, and sort of lost favor for whatever reason," says Andy Reasoner, who owns Royal Palm Nurseries, a landscaping and pest control business in Bradenton.
From the 1920s and earlier, hybridizers were developing new varieties that now exist only in the older neighborhoods from Miami to Tampa. Each new hybrid produced a fresh round of excitement; for a time the Franklin Roosevelt, a colorful red, pink and green plant with long spotted leaves, and the green and yellow spotted Eleanor Roosevelt, both developed in the Miami area, were all the rage. Aubrey Christian, a hybridizer who liked creating leaves mottled with combinations of pastels, named his plants after artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. Crotons were named after family members, favorite pets and politicians. Rudy Bachman, another hybridizer, developed Mona Lisa, a croton with a broad leaf and a huge cream-colored center. Mona Lisa was popular about 20 years ago, but now only two collectors are known to have plants.
By the 1950s, some nurseries around Miami sold only crotons. Landscapers were using them for hedges, and entire neighborhoods were full of them. A croton backlash came when people realized that too many made for a garish presentation of clashing colors. Not suited for full sun, the plants acquired the reputation of being washed out and unkempt. White sap flowing from cut leaves stained clothes. A wave of negative press curtailed croton mania for a few decades.
But the colorful, slow-growing, drought-tolerant and hearty plant is making a comeback, and none too soon. As developers bulldoze old houses to make way for bigger homes, and rambling backyards morph into swimming pools and lanais, a dedicated group of hobbyists and professional growers is urgently scouting old neighborhoods and neglected gardens to rescue many of the remaining plants. They're on a mission to find the crotons of yesteryear before they disappear.
"It's gotten so hard to find these old crotons, it's almost tragic," says Harold Lee, a Tampa landscape designer and vice president of the Croton Society, a Tampa-based plant society with 180 members from across the U.S., the Caribbean, Central America, even Australia and Japan. "I've collected quite a few plants, from heliconias to gingers and palms, but when I got to crotons I stopped," says Lee. "This is such a wonderful, diverse plant with such a fascinating history."
The Croton Society, which formed in the Tampa area about six years ago, has garnered a following on both coasts. Its Web site, www.crotons.org, offers a wealth of information about plant history and care, and exhorts members to "Start cruising! Reconnoiter your area to locate interesting crotons, especially in old neighborhoods"- admonishing them, of course, to "always ask permission first" before taking cuttings.
"We are on a quest," Lee says. "The interest in these plants is just exploding. People are coming out of the woodwork to take part in this search. Right now, the horticultural arena is crazy about crotons."
Crotons do flower, but it's the plant that's showy, not the flower. They grow in a virtual kaleidoscope of colors and patterns with leathery or waxy leaves that can be long, thin and screwy, oak leaf shaped or large and broad shaped.
Finding and identifying old varieties is a priority of the Croton Society, and the main reason the group formed. "About 10 of us got together and decided that we had to do something," Lee remembers. "We agreed that we all love these plants and we wanted to see how many we could find and move before they disappear."
When found, rare varieties are often replanted in botanical gardens. Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg is one such repository. The garden has exhibited crotons since the early 1950s, but the collection, now named The Croton Patch, has grown considerably lately thanks to the efforts of the Croton Society.
Finding the rare varieties involves legwork. "You have to learn all the names to identify the plants, and it takes a while to learn them because there are about 800 known named varieties," Lee says. "I've seen people get into arguments to the point where they'll lose friendships over names of crotons. I'm telling you, there is something really bizarre about this plant."
Melbourne horticulturist and educator Dr. Frank B. Brown, 86, who recently released an updated version of his 1960 book Crotons of the World, agrees "They're back like gangbusters." Crotons first drew Brown's interest in 1955 when he noticed one growing outside his office. When he contacted the local plant society to inquire about it, he was told that they didn't know anything about crotons. Brown contacted the University of Florida, horticultural groups around the country, even a botanical garden in London, and each time heard the same story. The only tidbit he was able to glean from all of these sources was that crotons grow well in the Bahamas.
"I kept searching, but nobody knew anything," he remembers. "I said, 'Well, somebody should know something,' so I began research for a book. That's when I met the Miami hybridizers."
Over the years, Brown has become a mentor to many croton enthusiasts. "Oh, Lord, they talk to me, they visit me, they're here all of the time," he reports with a chuckle. "Now that the book has been reissued we're getting orders from all over the world. There's great interest coming from Australia."
Bradenton's Reasoner family was exchanging plant material with botanical gardens all over the world by the late 1880s. They sold plants to Northern garden businesses via mail order and the railroads, and published horticultural catalogues continuously from 1883 until 1936. Those catalogues hold valuable clues.
"My father, Bud Reasoner, was a big croton enthusiast," says Andy Reasoner. "As a boy he was collecting and breeding crotons. At one time he had his own collection of 60 to 80 different named varieties of crotons."
Many croton varieties never made it to the catalogues, and many were unnamed. Others were named but not shared. And therein lies part of the croton's intrigue: Many of the plant enthusiasts who hybridized crotons in those early years were secretive about their work. "There was a certain amount of that, and I don't quite get it. But it doesn't surprise me, either, because, as an example, hibiscus people are like that," says Reasoner, whose grandfather, Norman Reasoner, was the founder of the American Hibiscus Society.
Andy Reasoner, who holds a degree in horticulture from the University of Florida, theorizes that many of the older varieties gradually died out because their coloration was more a result of unstable viruses than genetics. The Croton Society's Harold Lee has his own theory about the lost hybrids.
"The Reasoner catalogues document the popular hybrids of the time, and the Reasoners developed many of those hybrids," he says. "But they don't list everything. Most of the early hybridizers didn't have a nursery. They were just hybridizing in their back yards and they were not sharing. There was an ego thing going on."
Thomas Edison was such a fan of crotons that for a time his winter residence in Fort Myers was reported to have the largest collection in the country. During tours of the gardens, visitors can see three of Edison's original crotons, clustered in a shady spot near the entrance to his dock.
Edison's three remaining original crotons were purchased at Reasoner's Tropical Nursery, which had developed several popular hybrids, according to Bob Alonzo, a croton enthusiast who lives in Fort Myers with Robert Halgrim Sr., 99, a family friend and the original curator of Thomas Edison's winter home. Halgrim began hybridizing and collecting crotons in 1920, and he was friendly with several of the Miami hybridizers.
For several years now, Alonzo and other members of the Croton Society have been working with Halgrim, Brown, hybridizers and collectors to identify hybrids. "When I met Mr. Halgrim, I realized there was only a handful of people who could identify the old varieties and that we were running out of time," Alonzo explains. "We've had some successes."
Tapestry is one of those successes. Black with hot pink mottling, this croton had been described to Alonzo by Halgrim. One lone Tapestry was found in the east coast garden of the home once owned by the man who had originally produced it.
"I never thought I'd see Tapestry, but by God, it's back and it's beautiful," Alonzo declares. Halgrim's information has also led to the discovery of other old collections, several in the Bradenton/Palmetto area.
Once a rare croton is found, propagation begins. Crotons are known to be genetically unstable, which means the seedlings don't usually look like parent plants. While crotons are simple to grow from clippings or air layering, getting a hybrid to stabilize can take five years. The Croton Society insiders, a group known to share clippings and knowledge, are quietly distributing Tapestry, but the plant is slow- growing, delicate and not likely to show up at Home Depot any time soon.
Lee would like to see an established nursery propagate older varieties to get them back out into the mainstream. The Croton Society's Web site is receiving inquiries from as far as Angola, and interest in Florida's crotons is great, he reports.
"I couldn't care less about making money on crotons," Lee says. "I just want to see them out there again. When people begin communicating, the plant has a better chance."
In their quest to find rare hybrids, plant enthusiasts have recruited landscapers and homeowners. Everyone is invited to join the hunt.
"We are not going to give up hope," says Alonzo. "The croton is a wonderful part of Florida's horticultural history. We need to get moving before these varieties cannot be found anymore."
Croton enthusiasts share growing tips.
"Crotons fell out of favor years ago when people started planting them as hedges in the blazing, hot sun and stopped taking care of them. They looked awful," says Bob Alonzo.
Instead, Alonzo advises, plant them under high, broken shade, especially under oak trees. "Under a live oak where the soil is sandy but acidic, with some fertilizer and water, they will be breathtakingly beautiful," he says. For a radiant croton, Alonzo also recommends a time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote.
Crotons grow well in warm, humid conditions and are ideally suited to subtropical and tropical climates. Their popularity in the cooler Tampa Bay area is probably due to the influence of the Reasoner nurseries, as they are better suited to more Southern climates.
Tampa resident Harold Lee has a yard full of crotons, approximately 70 varieties, many which have survived frosts and thrived for over 10 years. "Usually around October I mulch heavily," he advises. "With that mulch cover, the heat during the day keeps the root stock under the ground warm enough at night so that even if we have a real hard freeze and everything freezes to the ground, those plants will come right back from their roots."
Lee is a croton nut, evidenced by his colorful kaleidoscope of a yard. "This is Florida color," he insists. "If you take care of a croton the way it needs to be taken care of, it will become the focal point of your garden."