Few plants excite native horticulturists to quite the same extent as certain members of the genus Dracophyllum. The most striking species assume a growth form that is best compared with cabbage trees (Cordyline australis in particular), albeit on a smaller scale. However, the way in which the leaves of species such as D. latifolium and D. traversii arch gracefully towards the ground, upon a defined branching structure, gives these small trees a more expressive form than Cordyline australis.
Although the best-known images of Dracophyllum conform to the species described above, it is a diverse genus which exhibits a wide range growth of growth habits, including fine-leaved, cushion species, like D. muscoides, dense, medium-sized shrubs like D. longifolium (in its many forms, one of which is pictured below), and sprawling characters like the sub-alpine Dracophyllum kirkii.
As a rule, Dracophyllum spp. are somewhat exacting in their cultivation requirements, although some species are more amenable to garden use than others. Within northern areas, Dracophyllum sinclairii (which is naturally found in a variety of forms, of varying leaf blade sizes and branching structures) appears to be the most adaptable for planting within gardens. Dracophyllum strictum has also proven to be a useful, compact species; especially for areas south of Auckland (closer to its natural range, within the central North Island).
In more southern areas, Dracophyllum longifolium, D. kirkii, D. rosmariniifolium and the Chatham Island species, D. arboreum, are amongst the best species for garden use. All of these grow in challenging open habitats, making them resilient plants for the kinds of environments that are usual within gardens. However, D. arboreum‘s amenability is less easy to explain, as it comes from the equable, moist climate of the Chathams.
The name, Dracophyllum, means ‘dragon leaf’ (as derived from Greek), and refers to the similarity of some Dracophyllum species to cabbage trees (which were previously known as Dracaena1). Various species are known by the common names, ‘nei nei’ or ‘grass tree’. There are c. 60 species of Dracophyllum, occurring in New Zealand, Australia and New Caledonia – of which 35 are found in New Zealand.
This attractive smaller species forms distinctive hummocks of glaucous foliage within many of the South Island’s montane landscapes, such as Hooker Valley. It can be found with grasslands and areas of scrub, including rocky habitats. In some habitats, it forms the dominant element of the vegetation.
D. kirkii produces small, attractive, pale yellow flowers in early summer. As in several other high-altitude species, these flowers are borne singly – rather than on the inflorescences that are so characteristic of other Dracophyllum species.
Whilst predominantly from open habitats within regions with moderate rainfall, it is reasonably tolerant of dry periods and a degree of shade. However, a sunny position is ideal for this species. Planting specimens adjacent to rocks helps provide plants with access to the level of moisture that D. kirkii prefers, as well as assisting in maintaining a comparatively cool root run.
D. kirkii can be cultivated successfully within pots, a niche that is not entirely unrelated to some sites that it occupies within nature. With regards to this, I once received a worthwhile piece of advice about the cultivation of Dracophyllum spp. from Hamish Prebble of Texture Plants; namely, that it is a good idea to cultivate them within pots carved from ponga (as these help in creating a root environment that is conducive to their cultivation requirements).