Paint Outside The Lines With ‘Picasso Paintbrush’

Every garden center carries an assortment of annual bedding plants in the spring and summer. For most, as soon as Mother’s Day arrives, their carts are filled impatiens, begonias and marigolds. Often I wonder why customers fall into a rut, planting the same thing over and over again. Great landscapes are all about mixing color, texture and size. Years ago I visited a private garden in Nutley, NJ where white caladiums were part of the foundation planting for striking color in the shade. Instead of the typical humdrum solution, this exciting plant caught my attention from across the street. So I got to thinking; what could I do in strong western sun, at our house that would be different?

Croton plants are widely considered to be a houseplant in New Jersey or only seen in the tropics on vacation. Typically seen as having variegated leaves with shades of yellow, red and green, Croton was originally found in Indonesia. Native to Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the western Pacific Ocean islands, Croton grow in open forests. Fairly easy to grow indoors, Croton can add a terrific punch to any outdoor planting, particularly if you place them in brightly colored pots and add them to your landscape beds. Appreciative of a bright location, this helps keep their bold colors strong; they thrive in western and southern locations. Minimum nighttime temperature of 55°F, they really only require constant, even moisture like any other annual. Not too wet and not too dry! Humidity should be between 40-80%, something we never seem to have a problem with in New Jersey. After all, how many times have you heard people talk about our heat and humidity? We certainly don’t have a dry heat like Arizona!

The Croton plant, Codiaeum, comes in many shapes and colors from yellow, orange, red, green and purple-red. New leaves are green and change color as they mature. Glossy, leathery, smoothed-edged leaves and their bright markings, involving patterns that are blotched and striped are both bold and unique. As with most plants, there are a wide variety of cultivars available to the consumer. ‘Brasil’ is an Oakleaf style Croton with dark green leaves that appears to be smeared with yellow paint while ‘Banana’ has narrow, dark green foliage with yellow streaks. ‘Congo’, the variety I love to use in our foundation bed, has thick leathery leaves with a range of colors; orange, green, yellow and red. However, my new favorite, which we’re using in our cobalt blue, outdoor planters this year, is ‘Picasso Paintbrush’. Extremely narrow leaves with green, orange, yellow, red and purple has a unique free form growing habit, almost like colorful dreadlocks.

Annuals are plants that you replant every year. They go from our last frost date in the spring until the first one we have in the fall. Customers sometimes balk at the cost of planting annuals; not seeing the reward they have on a daily basis. My argument has always been that when you go out to dinner for a better meal, that experience is gone the next day. The cost of planting annuals can be rewarding from mid May thru October. Croton offer so much more than the casual companion plant in a dish garden. And while they can exceed heights of 4-6 feet in their native space, our outdoor growing season will limit them to only 1-2 feet, making them suitable and exciting for just about any outdoor planter or landscape bed.