Few plants really epitomise the tropical and sub tropical garden as well as the Cordyline. Planted alongside a few palms and bromeliads, you are instantly transported to some exotic location – a tropical resort with warm nights and barmy breezes.
There are 15 species of Cordyline, of which 8 are native to Australia. Others come from New Zealand and the South-West pacific region. One species originates from South America.
Cordylines are a slender, palm-like plant with a whorl of leaves clustered at the top of each cane. These leaves can vary, from the metre long strappy crown of C. australis from New Zealand to the tiny C. ‘Cameroon’, whose bronze and green leaves are only 9cm long.
The Australian native Cordylines all have mostly green leaves and occur along the eastern side of the country from northern NSW to far north Queensland. Many species are common features in rainforests and revegetation work.
Possibly the most widely known and cultivated species is C. fruticosa. The basic plant puts on a spectacular show of red leaves which can glow like fire under certain light conditions. It is believed that this plant originates from New Guinea and was planted throughout the Pacific region by the Polynesians for its many useful attributes. This plant hybridises easily, which has resulted in hundreds of cultivars with many different colours and leaf shapes. It is a plant collectors dream.
Most Cordylines are tough plants with strong root systems enabling them to tolerate lengthy dry periods. However, to deal with lack of water the plant will start to lose its leaves. Once ground water has returned the plant will spring back but it might need a trim back to regain a good shape.
Extremely hot weather will scorch the leaves. While many Cordylines and cultivars will handle the full sun, they will look healthiest and provide the best foliage colour in bright, filtered conditions. A high canopy is best. This is not feasible for all homes so try them under 50% shade cloth.
Regular water is another way to get the most out of these plants. In these conditions the plant will hold its leaves for longer. Avoid wet feet or boggy conditions as this will rot the rhizome of the plant.
Propagation of Cordylines is very easy. The seeds germinate readily, though they can be a bit slow. Stem cuttings can be taken from any part of the plant from mid spring to mid summer and struck in potting mix. Crowns (cane with leaves still attached) placed in a vase make a great indoor foliage display and will produce roots, giving you a clone of the original plant.
Cordyline are subject to a few pests. Grasshoppers attack some plants in the hotter months. A pesticide programme can be followed to control them. I prefer to let them have their way, knowing that when the rain comes and the temperature drops, the plant will put on plenty of new growth. Aphids are the other main pest. They will breed in the new foliage and suck the life out of the plant. Spray with a chilli and garlic brew or pyrethrum-based pesticide. Visit your nursery for more advice on aphid control.
Cordylines get their name from the Greek word ‘kordyle’ which means club. I have been told that in New Guinea, the plant was uprooted and the combination of the long, strong cane with the swollen rhizome proved to be a handy weapon.
Hawaiians plant Cordylines along the boundary of their properties to bring good luck. I grow them because they look great.