Top that if you can: when it comes to splashy colors, modern art has nothing on the croton.


I dunno art, but I know what I like

Modern art is for idiots. A bit strong, you may say, but how can an otherwise perfectly sane and rational segment of the population take a group of blobs, dots and accidents on canvas seriously?

Maybe I’m being unfair. Officially, modern art is defined as just about any art that “strays from portraying things realistically”. That means that an even wider variety of pretentious nonsense can be viewed as “inspired” or “extraordinary” by men with goatee beards or women with comfortable shoes. Not that I’m generalizing, of course.

I really believe that I’m not alone in this cynicism, and that a sizable portion of the Western world thinks that at least some, if not all modern art is a form of scam; a kind of fake art.

We have some classic examples of “artistic genius” that have made the news over the years. An unmade bed. Water pouring out of a tap into a sink. A pile of bricks. Plastic bags full of rubbish. All won prizes and sold for thousands.

When you see an Andy Warhol lithograph of someone’s face in three colors or a Campbell’s soup label, it’s hard for the average person not to think that they could have done exactly the same thing themselves with very little effort, and suspect that Mr Warhol just chucked some paint on a canvas, splashed it around a bit and hyped it to the art world.

On the other hand, there are a couple of things that are abundantly clear. Firstly, the average person didn’t create a Warhol litho; its weirdness proves that. More importantly perhaps, the average person wouldn’t even have thought of it. It may sound as if I’m arguing against myself here, but the fundamental point is that this stuff is still complete nonsense.

Jackson Pollock is another one – his stuff really is the ultimate in artistic cons. A canvas covered in a series of splashes, smudges and smears? Please. Next thing you know, they’ll be calling elephant art masterpieces. Actually, come to think of it, they’re both very similar…

Anyway, I think Jackson Pollocks’s a complete buffoon. As Paul Hogan, the Australian actor, said in a beer commercial while looking at one of his paintings, “That’s Pollock’s”.

He painted in what I can only presume is the same way as he thought – in a totally random fashions; you never knew what was coming next.

The plant world is generally a lot neater, better-organized and predictable. In contrast to most of its bedfellows, crotons do things a little differently – they are definitely not your average plant. I rather think that they come from the Jackson Pollock side of the evolutionary chain – they just can’t decide what color or shape they want to be.

Green and uniform they are certainly not. Their leaves are variegated, which just means that there are distinct different colors on one leaf. There are of course a number of variegated leaved plants around, but the croton, or Codiaeum variegatum, dares to be different, and takes this idea one step further.

As I write this page on a weekly basis, I should be able to describe precisely what a croton looks like, but honestly, I can’t, as they’re all totally dissimilar. There are certainly a few members of the family that look similar, but every single croton plant is unique.

They’re usually a meter or two tall, and have at least six different leaf shapes, from long and narrow to wide and oval, or a kind of maple shape. Some even form themselves into corkscrew arrangements. The leathery, shiny leaves don’t usually get any longer than about 15 centimeters.

The colors are without doubt the most amazing thing about this plant. Most varieties we see in Phuket have at least two, if not three combinations of colors on their leaves; green, yellow, pink or red. They also have as many names as there are varieties, but in Thai they are typically called koson.

Watching them grow is worthy of one of those time-lapse films you see on the National Geographic Channel. The green and red variety, for example, grows quickly and enthusiastically in plenty of sun, as you’d expect. What you wouldn’t expect is that the new leaves are a completely different color from the lower ones – they initially emerge as light green and yellow.

As they begin to grow, they look as if they just can’t be bothered to be the right color, but over the next couple of weeks they muster a little energy and gusto, and eventually decide to change hues. By this stage, they look as if they belong to the rest of the plant.

It’s thought that the croton came from Moloko in Indonesia, originally in an all-green form. Over time, this original variety produced a “sport”, or an offshoot differing from the parent plant. Since then, crotons have continued to produce sports as offspring, and today, the seeds of the plant nearly always produce plants that look absolutely nothing like their parents. They should probably be from Manchester.

To this day, new hybrids are still being created, particularly in Thailand, where the plant is regarded as being a bearer of good luck. It also brightens up any spare sunny spot in the garden. It will put up with just about any treatment, but likes a fair bit of water. In a pot, it likes plenty of drainage, and will complain bitterly if the soil gets too muddy.

A sign that the croton is particularly content is when it produces clusters of small, nondescript flowers. They’re nothing to write home about, but that’s not a problem, as the plant is grown entirely for its spectacular foliage.

You could even bring your potted version indoors. Make sure it’s near a window to give it plenty of light, but plenty of heat too. Crotons and air conditioning are not a happy combination.

If you’re one of those who likes to walk round a garden trying to identify all plant life present, this one’s easy in its own particular way. If the leaves are weirdly multi-colored and you haven’t a clue what it is, it’s probably a croton. I rather think that Mr. Pollock would have approved.



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