When it comes to some of the most spectacular houseplant displays, the bright, beautifully ornamental Codiaeum variegatum plant sits right at the top of my list. It may not have the most fascinating flower show, but its vivid evergreen foliage and strong structure more than make up for its inconspicuous flower spikes.
It seems that my admiration for this colourful, bushy sub-shrub is shared with a select majority of enthusiastic home growers around me. Over recent years, sales have shown a boom in the Codiaeums‘ popularity. In fact, several new varieties have been bred for their compact form, bright leaves, and relatively easy maintenance.
About Codiaeum variegatum
Foliage trees are among the most important houseplant groups. These tend to be much-overlooked, with many home growers preferring a short-lived flower attraction, rather than the lengthy display of a plant’s leaves and stems.
All plants within the Codiaeum genus are members of the Euphorbia family, and as such have the same toxic properties. Their stems, leaves and roots contain a milky-looking toxic latex sap. This can cause irritation when touched, and is poisonous when ingested. As a result, always remember to wear gloves when handling these plants, and keep them well away from little hands and inquisitive pets.
Today I’m taking a look at this fascinating foliage shrub and exploring some of its best-coloured varieties. There are several hundred exotic-looking species for me to choose from, with a whole host of leaf colours and shapes. I’ve settled on some original favourites, and a collection of more recently discovered varieties. I have no doubt that these will grab your attention, each displaying nature at its best.
This is the original variety and most basic species of the Codiaeum family. It’s native to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Western Pacific Islands, and parts of Australia. In its natural habitat, you’ll find Codiaeum variegatum commonly growing in open forests and scrublands. There, it’ll reach much greater heights than its houseplant equivalent, of anything up to 2 metres tall.
Its glossy, colorful, leathery, ovate leaves are alternatively arranged on the single main stem, creating a nice bushy form. Leaf colours range from green to yellow, though he leaves can change to a red- purple hue when mature. Each leaf can reach up to 30 cm long and 8 cm wide.
The leaves’ hues can vary massively, as can their light level requirements. As a general rule, the brighter coloured leaves need more light intensity than the green- and yellow-leaved varieties.
The photograph above is of a “Standard” Codiaeum variegatum. Its growth habit has been manipulated from infancy to create the mature shape it has now.
This plant’s flowers form in autumn, appearing on long racemes, or inflorescences. Flowers are produced en masse, of both male and female sex, though formed in separate racemes. Male flowers are white in colour, each with five small petals and numerous stamens. In contrast, the female flowers are yellowish, with no stamens.
Fruits of this tropical beauty come in the form of a seed capsule. Each capsule contains three seeds.
This plant group was first described as a genus way back in 1824. You’ll find that pretty much all cultivated Croton varieties are under the species of “Codiaeum variegatum pictum”, with the specific variety named at the end of the species name, as listed below.
Codiaeum variegatum “Craigii”
The Codiaeum craigii is a particularly stunning example of the lobed-leaf varieties. Its leaves are three-lobed and smooth, leathery and evergreen like most cultivated Crotons. This decorative foliage shrub’s colours are its greatest attraction. They range from deep green with light yellow veins and margins, to a red hue in maturity.
Codiaeum variegatum “Spirale”
The Codiaeum Spirale is a variegated, spiraled variety of the basic Croton variegatum. This plant is suitable for sites in dappled shade to full indirect sun, and garners plenty of attention. Its bushy form is typical of the genus, with slender woody stems and vast amounts of upright, twisted, oval leaves.
Leaf variegation will depend upon the brightness of its home, but they’re generally green and glossy with central golden midribs. The brighter the light levels, the more gold variegation you will see on the leaves. This happens especially around the margins and central golden irregular blotches.
Codiaeum variegatum “Majesticum”
Commonly referred to as the “Pheasant’s Tail Croton”, this bushy variety definitely resembles the bright colours in a male pheasant’s plumage. The leaves are long and linear, and look much like feathers. They’re dark green in color with irregular red and gold variegation.
As with all crotons, foliage colour will change under environmental conditions. It becomes much more vivid with deep pink and red leaves when it gets enough light and warmth. In maturity, its many branches take on a pendulous form from the main stem.
This variety is commonly grown outside in temperate climates, especially in Hawaii and Florida. In these regions, it’s used as ornamental hedging and specimen garden plantings. It’s a bright, beautifully coloured variety that’s sure to gain admiration from the neighbours.
Codiaeum variegatum “Golden Dust”
This lovely green-and-gold coloured variety is native to Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia. Its upright, bushy form is typical of the genus, as is its woody, shrubby stem. The bright green leaves are long and narrowly ovate, and spotted with beautiful golden yellow variegation. This looks much like “Spotted Laurel” or “Acuba Japonica”, and can commonly reach heights of up to 10 feet.
It’s a truly striking example of this fascinating species.
Codiaeum variegatum “Bravo”
This Croton variety is a real old timer: one of the best heirloom varieties, with some of the most vivid foliage colours around. As with all Codiaeums, is growth rate is relatively slow. Fortunately, this means it remains relatively compact in habit once matured.
Its broad, notched leaves vary in colour, from brilliant reds to pinks, coral to orange and yellows to cream, with each leaf vein intricately marked. In maturity, you can expect a height from around 4 feet tall. As a result, you’ll have a super-stunning specimen tree for your garden and home.
Codiaeum variegatum “Petra”
Native to South Eastern Asia, this Codiaeum “Petra” variety will mature to a manageable height of 5 feet. It’s an ideal, colourful, sunny specimen plant to cultivate. Its large, lobed leaves are the main focal point, producing bold colours from burgundy to scarlet red.
These can also vary from sunny yellow to burnt orange, and every green shade imaginable. The leaf colours may change with age, but the intricate vein markings remain unique to plants within the Codiaeum variegatum family. It’s an unusual, intricate foliage specimen—one of the newer varieties with superbly lobed leaves.
Codiaeum variegatum “Mammy”
This is a fairly new variety with intense colour and fascinating spiral-curled leaves. These turn from green to yellow and light rose to the deepest of reds. It’s a bushy, smaller version than many, reaching around 3 feet tall in maturity. Additionally, it’s more tolerant of harsh environmental conditions than some of the original Codiaeum varieties.
It’s a small plant, though perfect for garden and home use, packing a powerful punch with its colourful corkscrew leaves.
Codiaeum variegatum “Mona Lisa”
The “Mona Lisa” is up there with the best of the ornamental Crotons. In fact, its foliage simply makes you stop and revel in the marvel of nature. Young deep green, lightly lobed leaves have central yellow midribs, sometimes leaving just a deep green margin.
As the plant matures, the leaves change colour and develop red markings and midribs. These can turn to a deeper burgundy shade at times. In maturity, you can expect a height of around 1.2 metres, along with great foliage colour and a year-round bushy habit.
Planting Your Codiaeum
Where to Plant
All Codiaeums like bright sites with plenty of indirect sunlight, ideally with light shade cover from the hot midday sun. That said, they don’t like to be moved about too much. Once you have a good site for your Croton, keep it there.
Sheltered sites away from drafts are just perfect. Varieties can differ, but as a rule of thumb, those with brighter and more variegated foliage require more light to keep the colours bold and true.
Some Crotons stress when moved, which results in them losing their leaves. Needless to say, this can be a worrying time for a new owner. Rest assured, once they’re settled into their new site, they’ll adapt to the light levels and new leaves will grow.
Keep your Codiaeum at a temperature of around 20 to25 degrees C from March through to September. Then, above 15 degrees C from late autumn through to springtime.
In temperate areas, your plant can be grown outside in a sheltered site all year around. This will bring striking colour to your yard space. In all other areas, your Codiaeum is best grown in a greenhouse, conservatory or inside your home. They’re only winter hardy outdoors in zones 9 – 11.
Due to their native tropical environment, Codiaeums are happiest with fairly high humidity levels. This can easily be achieved by regularly misting your plant. Additionally, try placing your potted plant on a pebble tray filled with water. Clay hydroponic pebbles are probably best to use and can be purchased from any good garden centre.
Codiaeums will grow in any well-drained soil, but will perform best in those with added sand and a slightly acid pH level. Many ornamental shrubs benefit from acid soils, which bring more colour and better leaf growth than the more general loamy alkaline soils.
Repotting a mature plant specimen is best carried out in early spring, using a well-draining and sandy soil mix.
Caring for your Codiaeum
Throughout the spring and summer months, water your Codiaeum when the top of your potting soil is dry to the touch. Water well, letting the excess flow out and away from your plant’s roots. I recommend doing this once every five to seven days, in the morning.
This will allow your plants foliage to completely dry before nightfall. This avoids potential fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and leaf spot. Don’t let your soil completely dry out, and never let your plant stand in excess water.
Throughout the winter months, reduce your watering to once every couple of weeks, using the same method as above. If possible, use rainwater for watering your Codiaeum to avoid leaf chlorosis. This is caused by the chemicals in tap water and its high pH levels.
Feeding your Codiaeum
From March till August, when plant growth is at its height, I recommend using a well-diluted, acidic liquid fertilizer once every two weeks. This will aid in plant growth and replace all necessary nutrients used at this heavy feeding time. Always remember to water your plant first before you use a liquid feed.
Pruning your Codiaeum
Thankfully, these plants’ bushy structure means that there is little need to prune: only to keep it in a good, balanced shape. As with all Euphorbias, your plant will bleed toxic latex sap when cut, which can cause skin problems. Always remember to wear gloves when handling your plants.
Once cut, ywash over these areas with water and dust them with charcoal ash to prevent excess bleeding and possible infections.
The best way to propagate from your Codiaeum plant is by way of long tip cuttings in early spring. Side shoots tend to be best as they’re smaller and less leafy than alternatives.
How to Take Long Tip Cuttings
- Locate suitable side shoots, these being around 10–15 cm long, with at least two leaf pairs and the shoot tip
- Cut using sterilised snips, and dip into water
- Next, dip into powdered charcoal to seal the cut and avoid excess bleeding
- Allow your cuttings to dry overnight in an area with temperatures of 21 degrees C or above
- Select a suitable sandy potting mix and fill individual 9 cm pots
- Place one cutting per pot and place them in a polythene bag or in a heated propagator
- Temperatures need to be around 27–29 degrees C, and light levels need to be bright
- Leave for 4–6 weeks until new growth indicates new roots have been produced
- As soon as the roots are well established, repot in a suitable potting mixture
This tropical foliage plant tends to be very disease resistant, so long as correct watering measures are taken and its foliage is never left wet overnight.
Some common problems include the following:
- Dropping leaves: Your plant needs more light, move to a brighter site
- Leaf colour fading: Again, your plant needs more light
- Withered brown leaves: Your plant needs higher humidity levels, so mist more regularly
The most common culprits when it comes to sap-sucking insects are aphids, mealy bugs and woolly aphids. All of these can be treated easily, initially though, remove the affected plant away from your other houseplants to avoid spreading the infestation. Once moved, wash your plant off with a suitable soap solution, removing any noticeable pests as you go.
Should you need to take more drastic measures, alcohol wipes are a good method to rid your plant of aphids and mealybugs. Gently wipe over the affected leaves, discarding your wipes after use.
Alternatively, your local garden centre will be able to supply an effective insecticide/pesticide spray which is sure to eradicate the infestation.
Best Companion Plants
Foliage plant collections are some of my favourites. Diverse textures, forms, and shapes create a tropical indoor forest when brought together, which is like heaven for me! Houseplants help to remove harmful toxins from the air around us, which in turn results in a healthier, happier living environment.
My selection of foliage favourites starts with the Trachycarpus fortuneii: a fantastic tropical palm, perfect for that jungle vibe. Next would have to be Monstera delicosa, the classic favourite renowned for its large, glossy, ornamental leaves. In addition, Ficus lyrata is probably my best choice of ornamental fig trees, each leaf shaped like a fiddle and deep, glossy green in colour.
When placed together with Codiaeums, you’ll have one of the best foliage collections around.