Cabbage… Kiwi Style

If there were one plant that I could think of to describe New Zealand, it would be the cordyline. Known to normal people as Cabbage Trees or Cabbage Palms, this semi frost hardy monocot (plant with only one embryonic leaf, as opposed to the other option of having two) dots nearly every single type of kiwi landscape. I guess there would be another plant that screams New Zealand; Phormium. Flax is quintessential kiwi. While I’m thinking about it, tree ferns are a national symbol as well. So, in reality there isn’t a plant that I feel can claim notoriety as THE plant of the kiwis. At least 3 share that crown, and there are probably several more that other people would argue for.

But anyway, this is about cordylines. The plant that Pacific Northwesterners put in pots at their front doors to evoke a sense of subtropical style. The plant that a few of us have the guts to try in the ground. Everyone likes the cordyline because it always looks good, as long as it stays alive.

Hahei park
Cordylines, phormiums and cannas at a small town playfield. A classic set it and forget it combo in this part of the world.
Hahei park-1
More cordylines, likely ‘Red Star’ or ‘Red Sensation’, literally inches from a kid’s footy field.

The number of different cordyline species and cultivars is impressive, to say the least. You have your garden variety Cordyline australis, which you can find nearly anywhere in the world. Fairly frost tolerant, it will grow pretty much anywhere you can find a place to put it. Back in the US, I’ve babied my cordylines and treated them with cotton gloves. Here in New Zealand, I’ve seen them growing in hard packed clay, soggy marsh areas that most certainly never EVER dry out, hot and dry exposed ground, deep shade, full sun, and everything in between. I don’t think I could find a more adaptable plant here. Besides blackberries. I thought I had left them behind when I came here, but unfortunately they beat me here by a few years. I think I’ll have to try growing a few plain old C australis when I get home. They are a really nice plant, and when they start to mature they start looking really good.

coastal cordyline
A coastal Cordyline australis grove, loving the salt spray.

C australis is more than just a pretty face. It is a very useful plant, apparently. The young shoots are packed with protein and are pretty nutritious, and are the reason the plant is called a Cabbage Tree. I hear they are a bit fibrous, though. The trunks are heat resistant to the point that early settlers in New Zealand used the felled and hollowed out trunks as chimneys, instead of the traditional methods of using bricks or rocks.

Cordyline australis in Kakahi
Even in winter, when things look dead and leafless, cordylines look great. This on gets a lot of sub-freezing temperatures in the winter.
giant cordyline
Kind of scraggly, but still neat. This one has probably never seen freezing temperatures.

In the native land of the cabbage tree, you end up seeing a lot of variation introduced by plant people. I don’t know the names of all the varieties, but I sure do like them.

Cordyline in Otorohanga
A freshly planted cordyline in the town of Otorohanga.
Cordyline in Ohakune
This colorful cordyline is growing in the cold(ish) ski-town of Okohune.

Cordyline obtecta is another cordy that occasionally pops up. It actually is native to Three Kings Island and a few other small islands off of the northern coast of New Zealand. Those islands are slightly closer to the equator than the mainland, and as a result are a little less tolerant of cooler temperatures.

Cordyline obtecta
Cordyline obtecta

C obtecta has slightly wider leaves than C australis, but is smaller in stature. This one would be good for a greenhouse, or at least a large pot I think. I like that the leaves are wider as well. This is a blog about big leaves, after all.

Cordyline obtecta seeds
Cordyline obtecta berries. The flower panicles droop to the side, forming at the apex (top) of the growing shoot.

The holy grail of cordylines, however, is Cordyline indivisa. All of the UK gardeners out there already know this plant, since it has been growing there for upwards of several decades. It has proved to be somewhat frost tolerant over there, as well. Not as hardy as C australis, but close nonetheless.

In New Zealand, C indivisa is a completely different animal.

cordyline indivisa
Cordyline indivisa, at about 4000 feet elevation.

This behemoth of a cordyline is also known as the Mountain Cabbage Tree. It grows where other cordylines dare not venture. The frost- nay freeze- tolerance it exhibits puts C australis to shame. It grows perfectly well in alpine conditions, high up the slopes of the volcanic Mount Ruapehu in the North Island’s Tongariro National Park. The leaves are massively wide as well; upwards of 6 inches wide on some of the largest plants. As far as cordylines go, this is going to be as big as you can get. If you can get some of this lineage, I don’t think you are going to find any hardier or frost tolerant cordylines either. Cordyline indivisa is it.

cordyline indivisa up close
These cordylines were basking in near-freezing mid day temperatures.

When I say alpine, I mean truely alpine. The treeline ended a few dozen yards up the mountainside. It was truly impressive to see this plant in such inhospitable conditions.

cordyline indivisa en masse
The last few plants that were able to stay alive on the mountain’s chilly slopes. Pines, pseudopanax and cordylines.

I would be willing to bet that if someone were to try growing a few seeds from these cordylines in the milder climates of Washington and Oregon, they would do just fine. I wish I could have gotten seeds from them!

The flower panicles and seeds of C indivisa hang down underneath the leaves, waving any seeds I might be tempted to take just out of arms reach.

Cordylines are one of my favorite plants from this region of the world. Although I would love to pick up a few (a few dozen, who am I kidding) of these kiwi natives and bring them home with me, I can’t. There are a few native plant nurseries in the area, so I will see about getting some seeds from them and taking them back home with me.

3 thoughts on “Cabbage… Kiwi Style

    1. I wonder the same thing. Maybe the plant stock that is currently in circulation came from plants at lower elevations? There has to be some difference, because the plants here can take serious cold compared to what they die from in the US.


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