For a plant that does so much right, in terms of possessing a striking form and beautiful, scented flowers, cabbage trees often occupy a negative place within the psyche of many New Zealanders due to a peculiar order of priorities – in which the cabbage tree is painted as a pernicious enemy to the lawnmower. Childhood memories tarnished; all on account of that damned whirl of leaves that temporarily stops the mower blades from turning.
A simple solution to this quibble is to rake the leaves up and use them as mulch within gardens (a purpose to which cabbage tree leaves are ideally suited1) or simply to place trees well within plantings. Such concerns stand in stark contrast to the impressions formed by the first Europeans to comprehensively investigate our shores in 17692, for Sydney Parkinson was undoubtedly referring to Cordyline australis when he noted the presence of “a great number of tall and stately palms, which fill the air with a most grateful fragrant perfume” at Uawa (Tolaga Bay).
The distinctive form of C. australis has continued to be appreciated by gardeners on foreign shores, such as in England where it is widely referred to as the ‘Torquay Palm’. For a German friend of mine, who (like many gardeners from northern Europe) cultivates C. australis in a pot so that it may be moved undercover in winter, our cabbage tree still bears a similarly ‘exotic’ allure as it did to Sydney Parkinson in 1769.
New Zealand has five species of Cordyline, ranging in size from the massive dimensions that Cordyline australis can reach down to the tussock-like clumps that the diminutive Cordyline pumilio forms. With the exception of the northern offshore island species, Cordyline obtecta (syn. C. kaspar), which also grows naturally on Norfolk Island, our native species are endemic to our shores.
“It is almost the only plant in the New Zealand flora that gives a distinctive character to the scenery : when growing on river-banks or on the margins of boggy woods, or on islands in large lakes, it gives a peculiar palmy feature to the landscape, which is unique and attractive, and affords different effects at different seasons of the year…”
In the above statement from his 1889 publication, ‘The Forest Flora of New Zealand’, Thomas Kirk refers not only to the attractive qualities of Cordyline australis (such as its “many-branched panicles of fragrant whitish flowers”), but the manner in which tī kouka brings order to any landscape that it occupies.
Although his observation that it is almost the only plant to offer a distinctive character rather overstated the case (especially when one considers the ‘waterfalls’ of kiekie foliage that cascade down forest giants, or the flowering of pohutukawa, or the cathedral-like atmosphere and idiosyncratic canopy of kauri), cabbage trees provide a staccato rhythm and dramatic shift in form to the places that they inhabit.
For anyone wishing to find information about our cabbage trees, the primary resource is Philip Simpson’s remarkable book on this tree, ‘Dancing Leaves’, in which he explored multiple aspects of the cabbage tree – including its cultural value and associations (such as its usage as food by Māori) and its place within current and pre-human ecologies.
One point that Philip makes is that Cordyline australis is a plant of open habitats; one which has found a much greater range of opportunities as people have opened up many of our landscapes. This fact is often impressed upon gardeners in several of Auckland’s inner suburbs, such as Mt Eden, where cabbage trees seed prolifically (and would cover entire sections if left to their own devices). Prior to the disturbance associated with human activities, it found the high-light situations that it needs to thrive on the margins of forests (by rivers or the coast), within swamps, or in other naturally open habitats (such as rock outcrops)1.
In some parts of the country, C. australis can attain very large dimensions, reaching up to 20m in height and developing trunks up to 2m in diameter. The impressive scale of such specimens is demonstrated by a story, recounted by Thomas Kirk, of one tree encountered by William Colenso4 :
“In an account of Mr Colenso’s early botanical journeys in the central portion of the North Island he mentions a large specimen in the trunk of which a Patea Māori had constructed a small room in which to keep his baskets and tools : it was fitted with a door, and sufficiently high to allow a man to stand up within it : the tree was living, and was 20ft. 2in. in girth at the base.”
The new status symbol; a cabbage tree shed ! Unfortunately, despite the rather wonderful irony of the possibility of storing that avowed enemy of the cabbage tree (the lawnmower) within its trunk, trees of this scale are in short supply these days – especially at a handy distance from most residences.
Cordyline australis is naturally found over the full length of New Zealand’s three main islands. As Philip Simpson describes within ‘Dancing Leaves’, it varies significantly throughout the country, with some forms assuming a relatively spindly, multi-headed growth habit and others possessing a more robust form.