Cabbage Tree, Ti, Cornish Palm… what’s in a name for Cordyline australis?
I always think it is a pity that one of New Zealand’s most distinctive and delightful trees has a common name which is so dowdy and non-descriptive – cabbage tree. Yes, the inner leaves of young cabbage trees were indeed eaten by some European settlers in the hope they would be like the more edible ‘hearts’ of the tropical palm trees which the cabbage tree resembles. They were probably unaware that the naturalist on Cook’s second voyage to the southern seas, Georg Forster, had already seen the palm resemblance and checked them out, deciding that they taste a little of almond and a little of cabbage.
Before then Maori had their own generic name for the plant (ti) and lots of variations on it (ti kouka, ti rakau, ti pua, ti whanake, titi, ti manu…) depending on the specific characteristics of the regional types of Cordyline australis, which show considerable variation from the north to south and east to west of the country. They also had their own edible use for the plant, as a ‘sugar tree’. The trunks of young trees were baked for up to 36 hours in umu (earth ovens), by which time the starch inside turns into sugar. What is now known as South Canterbury was a major site for such sugar production – the name Temuka is a contraction of Te Umu Kaha (the strong oven). I have eaten plain biscuits made with cabbage tree sugar (extracted much more quickly by Otago University scientists using pressure cookers), and their taste and texture were similar to cane sugar biscuits.
But we don’t grow the cabbage tree to eat in any form these days – we grow it because it is a unique and wonderful tree, which is how they regard it in the south-west of England, where it goes by such names as the Cornish, Torbay or Torquay palm. So let’s show our appreciation of this dramatic tree, with its impressive (and sweetly scented) flowers and interesting history by planting more of it wherever there is a suitable space, and sharing its story widely.
Ti kouka’s cousin, Ti ngahere
Cordyline australis usually grows singly or in small groups in open ground, but its has a forest cousin, C. banksii, a much smaller tree (or large shrub) which prefers a bit of shade and the company of other plants. It is an excellent plant for a mixed shrub border. The picture below left shows it flowering behind a Philadelphus lemoineii – when they are both in bloom their scent perfumes the whole garden. The picture below right is a close up the ti ngahere flowers – like the leaves of the tree they are longer, more widely separated and graceful.