Ever stood in front of this tree and thought “oh what a nice palm tree”? You’re not alone with that and actually not far off either. This so called Cabbage tree is a type of tree lily, like yucca and dracaena. Their tufted heads are a familiar sight in New Zealand.
The Cordyline australis better known as cabbage tree, cabbage-palm or ti kouka is one of the commonest of New Zealand’s native trees and may be regarded as perhaps the most iconic. It is growing all over New Zealand rising from sea level up to 760 m and a quote from Philip Simpson sums it up quite nicely:
“In primeval New Zealand cabbage trees occupied a range of habitats, anywhere open, moist, fertile and warm enough for them to establish and mature: with forest; around the rocky coast; in lowland swamps, around the lakes and along the lower rivers; and perched on isolated rocks. Approaching the land from the sea would have reminded a Polynesian traveller of home, and for a European traveller, conjured up images of the tropical Pacific”.
That means, you will encounter the up to 20 m tall tree with its stout trunk and the sword-like leaves that can measure up to 1 m almost everywhere you go, but probably not as much in Fiordland. They appear in a few different shapes as with a widely branched trunk, a tall and relatively unbranched stem, or even no stem at all as it happens for the dwarf cabbage tree that grows up to 1 m in height.
Until it is 6 to 10 years old a cabbage tree would not flower and therefore have slender unbranched stem. In spring and early summer, sweetly perfumed flowers are produced in large dense panicles (flower spikes) that are 0.6 to 1 m long, bearing 5,000 to 10,000 white or creamy-white flowers and produce up to 40,000 seeds. After its first flowering the cabbage tree will start to branch, as the flower panicle arises from the growing tip. From this point onwards, each successive flowering causes further branching.
The berries, white or blueish fruits, are about 7 mm in diameter and eagerly eaten by birds, including the bellbird and New Zealand pigeon.
Maori used the pith of the trunk as well as its fleshy root and the young leaf bud as a rich food source and since Cook’s voyage to New Zealand, the cabbage tree’s edible leaf bud was also used by Europeans. High in sugars the fleshy rhizomes were steam-cooked in earth ovens to produce kauru, a carbohydrate-rich food, that was used to sweeten other foods. The growing tips of leaves were eaten raw or cooked as vegetable. Cabbage trees served not just as a food source but were also used in spiritual, medicinal and practical manner. For instance the tough fiber, once extracted from the leaves, was highly valued for its strength and durability especially in seawater. It is stronger than flax fiber and was therefore used for making anchor ropes, fishing lines, cooking mats, baskets, sandals, leggings (as protection when travelling in South Island high country) and ropes, that could be build into Morere swings for Maori kids to play with. Either boiled up or pounded into a paste various parts of the cabbage tree were used to treat illnesses or injuries as well.
The cabbage tree is one of the few New Zealand forest trees, that can recover from fire. Due to its protected rhizomes under the ground it can renew its trunk from the rhizome’s buds. As an advantage to other trees it can regenerate itself quickly and the fire has eliminated competing plants.
The leaves of the cabbage tree contain oils which make them burn readily, but the same oils are also slowing down the decay of fallen leaves, so that a dense mat, preserving the seeds of other plants from germinating, can be build up. Eventually the leaves will break down and will form a fertile soil around the tree. The seeds of the cabbage tree also store oil, which means they remain viable for several years and can germinate in great numbers after a bush fire cleared up the land of vegetation, making the most of the light and spaces opened up around them.
Interesting is also, that older trees are to be seen to grow epicormic shoots directly from their trunks after a fire or storm damage. They also can produce rhizomes from its trunk above the ground, which will grow down into the soil to regenerate the plant after the trunk should have become hollow or sustained damage.
Want to learn more about the cabbage tree and its history? Come on a Boat Cruise with us, or get close to these fascinating trees on a Scenic Cruise and Walk.