Known locally as go-son, every local plant nursery carries a few varieties. The selection changes each season and sometimes by the shipment, but the full spectrum of hybrids is virtually limitless.
Over the past few years, my love for go-son has often bordered on obsession. Having the personal belief that no fixation is good, I found some solace in the fact that I’m not alone my search for the perfect croton. Thai hybridisers have shown me that cultivating crotons to an art form can validate my personal fascination with the plant.
Native to India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia, crotons were off the indigenous plant list for Thailand, until in 1880, Lord Paskornwongs brought the decorative plant to the kingdom from India.
Thailand’s first go-son, Khaek Dam (black Indian) was received well among high-ranking courtiers and the rest is history. Crotons now permeate every corner of the country and of course our island home.
My interest in go-son began some time back when I told our landlord how much I admired her two-metre tall croton. She said, “If you like it, during the rainy season, take a cutting and shove it in the ground. It’s very easy to grow.” So I did, and sure enough it did grow into a new plant.
She also gave me a few varieties to which I soon discovered the beauty of contrast.
The first croton had a long, thin, green leaf covered in dense yellow speckles. This variety grows wide and bushy. The other had a broader, dark purple leaf, highlighted with a gradation of light green to pink. This one grows long and thin. Placing the two together with the wider in the back was such a success that I wanted to try it again with other varieties. Since then, I have collected just over 20 varieties and I’m always looking for more.
What I love about gardeners is how willing they are to share.
Two of my treasured crotons have been acquired by asking other enthusiasts for a cutting. If my Thai was better, I’m sure I would go door to door with garden scissors in hand. Given my linguistic limitations, I usually stick to buying new varieties and growing what few seeds I can harvest from the more established go-son around the house. Cuttings ensure the new plant is identical to the parent plant, but seeds is where the fun comes in as you won’t know what you have until the seedling matures.
Crotons for the most part are very hearty and easy to grow, but this doesn't mean you will have a 100 per cent success rate. I’ve bought identical plants from the same nursery and planted them side by side only to have one thrive and the other die.
I’ve suffered through a few times of buying the more high-end varieties only to watch them die within a few weeks of bringing them home. There has also been the occasional odd plant that just decides to shed its leaves and give up on life.
Crotons do well outside in the full sun and can grow up to three metres. Younger plants should be given some relief as too much direct sun can scorch the leaves.
Crotons also love plenty of water but make sure the soil is well drained. Standing water can cause root rot and when that happens I’ve found little can save the plant; best to take a cutting and hope it takes root. Pests can also be a problem.
Mealy bugs sometimes go after the cuttings. I’ve found diluted liquid dishwashing soap in a water spray bottle will chase them away.
The other pest is a bit more stubborn and I can’t for the life of me get any information on it. The insect or fungus is flat, about a millimetre in length and half a millimetre wide. It sticks to the bottom of the leaves but sometimes infests both sides. Soaking the leaves in soapy water while carefully scrubbing the leaves can dislodge the intruder but not always.
When this type of cleaning doesn't work, I have found pruning the infected branches a dramatic but effective remedy.
Phuket resident Kevin Shupe is a keen composter, gardener and environmentalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org