The cabbage tree

IKOUKA (the cabbage tree, Cordyline australis) is a plant uniquely Kiwi. Although indigenous to New Zealand, it is seen in parks and gardens all over the world, not only because of its rather exotic-looking, strap-like leaves and cork-like bark but also for its ability to handle a huge range of climates and soil conditions.

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The Three Kings cabbage tree (Cordyline obtecta syn. C. kaspar) has wider leaves than C. australis and grows to 4m.

Maori made extensive use of ti kouka. The leaves were used for cloaks, sandals, baskets and – being more durable in salt water than flax – for fishing lines and anchor ropes. It was an important food, especially south of Banks Peninsula. As Professor Helen Leach notes in 1,000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand, “where it was too cold for the kumara to grow, the young cabbage tree … was used as a source of sugar after prolonged baking at high temperatures in the earth oven”.

Maori also used some of the medicinal properties of the tree to treat cuts, cracks and sores, diarrhoea, stomach pain and colic. The name “cabbage tree” came about because early European settlers followed the Maori example and ate the blanched inner leaves and heart of the branches. They also made beer from the roots.

Instead of grumbling about the leaves that wrap around your lawn mower, as they do, just try planting a cabbage tree back from the edge of your lawn. It will reward you with a sense of God’s own flora in your garden. It eventually gets to 6m in a garden situation and often gives a sense of perspective, giving height, structure and distinctive form to plantings.

Added benefits are the large panicles of fragrant white, bird-attracting flowers that protrude out of the head of plants six or so years old.

The flowering period is October to December, then from March through to May cabbage trees are copious producers of fruit, favoured by many native birds. I have several trees, for those reasons and one other – our family cat uses them to sharpen his claws, rather than inside our house!

Most people are familiar with the plain green form (C. australis), which I prefer, but the slightly smaller, purple-leaved C. australis ‘Purpurea’ has its followers.

There are many cultivated forms, too, such as C. australis ‘Red Star,’ an improved dark red form, and C. australis ‘Albertii’, a green and white striped variety, striking as a container plant as it grows only to about 4m.

There are many others offered by garden centres, including dwarf forms that are the result of crosses with other species. ‘Red Fountain’ is a C. banksii x C. pumilio hybrid with deep wine red foliage C. x obtecta ‘Green Goddess’ has wide, bright green leaves and C. ‘Purple Tower’ is a low-growing deep red hybrid, perfect for a shady corner, or just as happy in a tub on the deck in full sun.

So when you are thinking what would be great addition to your own piece of paradise, try the humble cabbage tree and you will be rewarded for many years to come.

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‘Wal’s Candystripe’ is a Cordyline australis cultivar.

Cordyline species

New Zealand has five species of cabbage tree, of which the most familiar is ti kouka (Cordyline australis).

The Three Kings cabbage tree was formerly known as C. kaspar but is now considered to be the same species as Norfolk Island’s

C. obtecta. Many nurseries still list it as C. kaspar.

The mountain cabbage tree (C. indivisa) is a small (to 3m) forest-dwelling species with wide, blue-green leaves. It tends to be difficult to grow in garden situations.

The forest cabbage tree (C. banksii) is naturally found in coastal or lowland forest from North Cape to Westland. Because it readily hybridises with C. australis and C. pumilio, it is being used in some breeding programmes.

The “stemless” or dwarf cabbage tree (C. pumilio) comes from the northern half of the North Island, often in kauri forest or scrub where kauri once grew. With its very short stem and narrow leaves, it looks rather like a grass or Dianella.

In recent years, many hybrids of C. pumilio and C. banksii have been bred with multicoloured leaves. New to the market this year are ‘Electric Star’ and ‘Electric Pink’, both suitable for growing in pots, as are ‘Wal’s Candystripe’, ‘Wal’s Goldfinger’, ‘Polka’ and ‘Midnight Star’.