Cordyline the Lion-Hearted

October 20, 2011 § 11 Comments

I’ve just come back from a quick break in the Cordyline County, and things are looking good there. Yes, the cabbage palms of Wexford are recovering well after the ravages of last winter. If you remember, we talked about these New Zealand natives already on One Bean Row (here). I’m very keen on them, but not all of you agree with me. Some commenters were less than cordial about cordylines.

Costa del Sunny Southeast

So, I feel I should reiterate a few of their good points: they have huge sprays of lily-scented flowers that are beloved of bees, and the waxy berries that follow are full of fats, which makes them a valuable bird food. And, of course, their moppy heads of strappy leaves give one the feeling of being permanently on holidays (see photo above).

Cordylines don’t suit all climates, but in milder areas of Britain and Ireland (and elsewhere), they are happy. If you want a sturdy tree with great shape for a tropical-looking scheme, the cordyline is the one for you. If you want a tree that will take the saltiest gales that the sea can throw at it, the cordyline is the one for you. And if you want a tree with foliage that will provide you with fibres for rope or heavy clothing, and with roots that are full of natural sugars, then the cordyline is definitely the one for you.

Okay, I doubt that any but the most ardent sustainability proponent will actually weave or eat the cordyline, but at least these qualities make a good conversation starter — if you happen to be at a loss for words next to a cabbage tree.

Stuck for conversation? Let's talk cordyline.

There are many different varieties, including a smart, stripy cultivar (‘Torbay Dazzler’) and numerous glum-looking, plum-coloured ones, but the sturdiest of them all is plain old Cordyline australis. The others rarely make it to a great age.

Which brings us back to the misfortunes of last winter, when the thermometer dipped low and stayed there for many days. More than a few cordylines ended up like this once-magnificent specimen at Kylemore Abbey garden in Co Galway — completely wiped out:

Dead as a dodo?

It was over a hundred years old. What a shame to see its gaunt corpse standing there, with a few shreds of last year’s flowers hanging from the branches, like the tattered rags of a once beautiful party dress. But wait! Let’s take a closer look at its fat trunk:

Ha! Fooled you.

Oh yes! Fresh young shoots, lots of them, are pushing out from the thick elephant-skin bark. You see, this cordyline is really as tough as old boots (in fact, you could probably weave a pair from it). In time, the old tree will completely regenerate. It will be a bristling green stump for several years, but eventually, the limbs will elongate and will once again hoist themselves proudly over the six-acre walled garden.

A similarly happy Lazarus story is being told by other cordylines. They appeared to be quite dead after last winter, but around midsummer they began to resurrect themselves by sprouting anew. Look at these rehabilitating cabbage trees on a roundabout in Wexford:

Alive!

The dead bits have been expertly removed, and the trees are rebudding from trunk and base. Incidentally, if you are the owner of a back-from-the-dead cordyline, it’s too late in the year for serious surgery. You can nip away some of the horribly limp and squidgy bits, but don’t go right down to the new growth. There is a good link here on the Paramount Plants and Gardens blog that describes how to treat damaged cordylines — but it is advice for next year, not now.

In case you are wondering, the caerulean sky-and-sea photos at the beginning of this blog post are at my favourite restorative hotel in Ireland, Kelly’s in Rosslare — where the sun always comes out for at least a portion of your holiday. The garden — which conceals a mini-golf course — is a masterful piece of design: all the plants are suitable for a windswept coastal situation, and there is something flowering, fruiting or otherwise showing off all year round (Tulbaghia, Nerine, Rosa rugosa and pampas grass in October).  It was designed by Angela Jupe and Sandra Cosgrove. And, because there are cordylines in plenty, a person is never short of conversation.

Kelly's Hotel, Rosslare: Cordyline capital of the Cordyline County

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Coming up Cabbages: a few words on Cordylines

February 11, 2011 § 21 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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