Coming up Cabbages: a few words on Cordylines

February 11, 2011 § 22 Comments

Ireland is often a green and misty land (although less greener than usual during this cold winter). And one of the things that surprises visitors is the sight of “palm trees” incongruously raising their mop tops through the Celticky fog. They decorate our towns and suburbs, they are blasted by the salt air on our seafronts, and they are often seen in pairs guarding the entrances to farmhouses. But, they are not palm trees at all: they are the New Zealand native, Cordyline australis. They enjoy the common name of “cabbage tree”, supposedly because settlers in New Zealand found the young leaves to be a tolerable substitute for cabbage.

Cordylines flanking the door of Corke Lodge in Co Wicklow

Cordylines are much loathed. Partly it is because of the occasional and near-indestructible leaves that the trees shed (dried, they make great kindling) and partly — I think — it is because they have both lowbrow and suburban associations. It’s not unusual to see them sprouting out of a jolly carpet of summer bedding. In other words, in the eyes of a certain kind of refined gardener, the cabbage tree is a shining example of bad taste.

One of the first things that cordyline-haters do upon inheriting one in a garden, is to hack it down to the ground. The trees are unfazed by such insults, and regenerate eagerly, popping out several stems in the place of the previous single one. Good for them. This winter and the last, though, have not been kind to cordylines, and the inland parts of this country are littered with their still-standing, but mummified, corpses. I fear they may not rise again to annoy the better classes of gardeners.

Cordyline in the garden at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara

Where I live, however, all these misunderstood New Zealanders are in the pink of health. Our barometer has not dipped lower than minus 5 degrees Centigrade (23 F), whereas elsewhere in Ireland, the temperature was ten or more degrees colder. In our mild climate, the cordyline blooms every year. The angular panicles are crammed with creamy flowers, which open in late spring, and go on for weeks. The scent — strongest in the evening — is powerful and lily-like. For me it is one of the exhilarating fragrances of early summer. Bees would seem to agree. They love the flowers, and work them all day. And in the autumn and early winter the thousands of ivory-coloured berries, which are full of fats, help to keep birds alive. My neighbours’ tree across the road is a busy re-fuelling point for blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, blackcaps and wood pigeons.

Snowy cordylines across the road

If you don’t like cordylines, or if they don’t do well in your colder area, then — as we say here in a very self-righteous voice — I’m sorry for you. And you’re not likely to be interested in knowing that they belong to the same family as asparagus, Asparagaceae, a clan that also includes lily-of-the-valley and hosta.

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You should have been here last week

August 25, 2010 § 14 Comments

“You should have been here last week.”

If you’re a gardener, you’ve said this a hundred times to visitors, even though — after the twentieth time — you know how clichéed and ridiculous it sounds. When you’ve been saying it for a few years, you’ve got to the point where you’ve tried it out in so many modes, from self-deprecatory to funny-voice, that you’re right back to being sincere again. Because, really, the garden is always better in retrospect, or in the future.

Or rather, it is when you find yourself looking at it through other people’s eyes. All the holes in the planting, the weeds and the other horrors rise up and spoil the view. But the gratifying thing — in my patch, anyway — is that when the visitors leave, the garden settles down again and stops being inadequate. When there’s no-one around to judge, when it’s just me and the garden, I’m content. And I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are gardeners who garden so that other people can see their efforts, and there are those who don’t. I’m one of the latter: one of those who like their space best when there is no-one else in it. For us, tending a plot of ground is a solitary pastime.

Except that it is not. We are never alone in a garden. There are birds and bees, and sometimes butterflies, and other interesting things such as worms and woodlice. For me, these creatures are as important as the plants that grow here. I try to garden as much for them as I do to make a pretty picture or a productive patch for myself. The longer I garden, the more I feel that the space outside my door doesn’t really belong to me, but to the gazillion other beings that inhabit it. I know that I’m the one in charge, but if the garden were the territory of only me and the other people who live in this house, it would be a pretty dull place. If there were no opportunistic robin following me around, or no surprise frogs in the long grass, or no fat worms pulling the mulch underground, I wouldn’t have half as good a time out here.

It’s not that I don’t like visitors: I do, but they sometimes make me feel a little on edge and over-protective of my garden. And I start babbling the “you should have been here last week” excuse. But, to tell the truth, I’m quite glad that they weren’t.

SNAP DU JOUR

He-She lives here too (they’re hermaphrodites, you know)

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