Gulf Croton (Croton punctatus) is a small, rather nondescript shrub you may have seen at Lowcountry beaches among other dune vegetation.
You can spot it by its distinctive leaves, which vary in color from dull, grayish green to almost silvery in the case of very young foliage.
The species occurs along Southeastern coasts and the Gulf states, south to Mexico and northern South America.
Along with other coastal vegetation, Gulf Croton helps retard beach erosion and stabilize dunes. Not surprisingly, the plant is remarkably tolerant of the sorts of conditions you’d expect in dune habitats. This means bright sunlight, high soil temperatures, drought, strong winds, and nutrient-poor, sandy soil.
Gulf Croton shrubs may reach a height of several feet. Sometimes they grow in large clumps, which collectively intercept wind-transported sand, thus helping dunes to grow. The plants tolerate sand-scouring, as well as partial burial by wind-driven sand.
As a group, crotons include some 1,300 species of trees, shrubs, and herbs found around the world, especially in the tropics and subtropics. They all belong to the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), along with the ornamental “crotons” (Codiaeum) popular for landscaping.
Although not as showy as its ornamental cousins, Gulf Croton is a stately little shrub in its own right, sometimes grown in wildflower or butterfly gardens.
Its fragrant, inconspicuous, whitish flowers are attractive to insects, and its seeds provide food for a variety of birds.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at email@example.com.