Friday, November 27, 2009

Cabbage Trees

Cabbage Tree (rākau or kōuka Cordyline australis with their foaming cascades of flowers)

(Mystery tree growing on the other side of the world in Scotland. Photo sent by Angie.)

In a comment following my last post, Angie asked for help identifying a tree that grew in her part of Scotland that she thought was a New Zealand cabbage tree Cordyline australis.
From Angie's photos and description I think it highly likely that her tree is this wonderful New Zealand tree. Cabbage trees flower in late Spring here, so I was able to rush out yesterday evening and take some photos of the ones we have growing around here complete with their flowers.

We planted most of our cabbage trees between 10 and 18 years ago, and I wasn't able to get very close to the flowers on our trees as most of them are 15 or 20 feet up (my 2001 vintage digital camera also has only a 2x optical zoom). I did contemplate climbing onto our roof and taking a photo from up there, but I think the photos that I took have enough detail to give the idea of what the flowering stems look like.

The hundreds of tiny new flowers look like some sort of huge snowflake on their flowering stem when viewed from this angle.

The stem of the cabbage tree has a distinctive texture. It is rough, fissured, slightly soft and cork-like. I am no botanist, but I seem to recall someone saying that the stem is actually more like the root of a plant rather than a trunk, and that you can plant sections of the trunk and they will grow into a tree.

A Cabbage tree starts life as a little head of spiky green leaves. In the very early stages it looks a bit like young New Zealand flax, phormium tenax, but the leaves are a brighter green and somewhat thinner.

In time the young cabbage tree will grow a trunk. Cabbage trees will tend to hold onto their old leaves, especially in the colder parts of the South Island of New Zealand. The old leaves form a rather decorative skirt around the trunk which helps insulate and protect the tree. We find that birds will often nest in them, as well as in the new leaves.

The top of the tree branches after each flowering. The trees will also grow up multi stemmed if the trunk is damaged. Some of our trees had a bad time with frost when they were young, and some got diseased, these all grew up with several stems.

These trees remind me of dancers grass skirts.

Cabbage trees give a fascinating display of form and texture in the garden. Birds and insects love them. Cabbage tree roots are full of sugar and were a food source for Maori. Cabbage tree leaves burn furiously, but the trunks resist fire. In areas where fire has destroyed forests, cabbage trees are often able to recover quickly.

Something Amazing!
Laura has a Farmer's Magazine of 1836. In it is a lovely picture and article about Cow Cabbage. These were tree cabbages! I imagine that they would have been quite a challenge for garden snails and slugs, but may have been a haven for cabbage white butterflies which would been out of sight of the farmer below!

A new link.
I have put a link on my blog to a blog site that is by Armelle who lives on an Island just off the coast of France. Armelle does really lovely paintings, takes wonderful photos, and is also making a raku kiln. Armelle's site is in French, but she kindly includes an English translation. I really enjoy visiting her site.

Happy Thanksgiving!
This is a day or two late, but happy thanksgiving to those of you in America. I have just started to catch up with some of your thanksgiving blogs, and can see what a special, thoughtful day it is for you. It seems also to be such a family occasion with people getting together for a shared meal. I wish we had a similar day here. A National day of thankfulness seems such a positive thing.


Angie said...

Very interesting.... it's almost a match. I'm not sure how old mine is but it only flowered for the first time in 2008 and has grown about a foot in the past 5 years. The trunk is a little less cratered and there is no skirt ...not even on the taller ones I have seen in the area. Thr old leaves hang down and then the following year, fall off ...helped by me and the wind lol.
Your ones are amazing ...thankyou for taking the trouble to photograph them and put this all on your blog ...maybe there will be some ideas from your followers.
Take Care

Arkansas Patti said...

Very interesting Peter. Not sure if it is the same thing as our Cabbage Palms we have in Florida. Probably same family.
Sadly, they are often harvested when they are about 6 feet tall to secure the "heart of Palm" that is the core of the tree and quite etible. It is used to make swamp cabbage which is a staple at a wild hog BBQ.
Swamp cabbage is quite good but it seems a shame that a whole tree has to die for one meal. I had quite a few in my yard in Florida.

Pat - Arkansas said...

Wonderful photos of an intriguing plant, Peter. I've never before heard of a cabbage tree. I wonder if they would grow in Arkansas? This inquiring mind will try to find out.

Thank you for your closing well wishes for our Thanksgiving Day. My own day was wonderful, there being present three of my four children and their families (grandchildren ranging from 28 years old to not quite 5 years old, and one great grandchild who is 5 months old... she's a sweetie). My family is the thing for which I give the most thanks; everything else is an add-on.

cindy shake said...

Sorry I can be of zero help -we have nothing here in Alaska even close! Nice to see some greenry in the photos this time of year though! I was thinking that those trees at the top look as if they have hula skirts on :o))

Armelle said...

I think there is no Cabbage tree here, even if the weather is mild enough for palm trees and yuccas, now I would look to see, perhaps I will find some.
Thank you Peter to add a link to my blog. I am sorry, my english is really bad !!!
I add a link to your blog in my links, but they are not highlighted like on blogger.
Kind regards

SunShine said...

Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday. Canada has adopted Thanksgiving (though they celebrate in October) and I think starting it in New Zealand sounds like a grand idea. When is NZs end of harvest time? June?

Linda Starr said...

Wow, those are amazing as are the ones from the old book Laura found, so wonderful so see those illustrations.

Peter said...

Thank you everyone for your comments. I'm wondering if Angie's original question about the identity of her mystery tree could now provoke a flurry of cabbage tree planting around the world! It was fun taking the photos of our trees, and I hope it has been of some help. Cabbage trees are quite variable in appearance, and some hang onto their skirt of old leaves more firmly than others! They do take several years before flowering. My guess is about 6 or 7 years, but I could be wrong with that, it might be longer.??

Alaska could be a challenge so Cindy may miss out on a cabbage tree, but our ones did manage to cope with down to -15 degrees Centigrade (5 degrees Fahrenheit) occasionally when still young back in the early 1990s when we had very cold winters here (they'll manage -10 C (14F) without a problem.

Pat wondered if they would cope with Arkansas? I bet they would grow like rockets there! They certainly do well up in the warmer parts of the North Island of New Zealand.

I also see no real reason why they shouldn't thrive where Armelle lives on the Belle-ile-en-mer, palm trees and yuccas seem like good companions to me, and cabbage trees manage with coastal situations very well.

I think the NZ cabbage tree is very different to the cabbage palm that Arkansas Patti mentions, although they both have parts that can be eaten. I'm guessing that the Cabbage palm is Sabal palmetto??? (I've just become a 5 minute expert thanks to Wikipedia!). From what the Wiki says, it does sound like I could grow cabbage palms here, so maybe we should swap our trees around! I too feel sad at the prospect of killing a whole tree just to eat part of it, it seems almost as bad as making lark's tongue soup!

Jewels asks about the end of harvest time in NZ? After all these years living here, I still haven't quite worked it out (I was calibrated for Northern hemisphere seasons!)... Just consulted Laura (made in NZ!), and she bravely plunged into the freezer to check when the quince pulp had been frozen. From an old ice cream container deep within the permafrost she has found that our quince were boiled up in April! I guess quince are one of the later fruits that we pick here so I would think May would be getting near end of harvest of most things??

Linda, the old farming book is wonderful. It was printed in Great Britain in 1836, and covers many aspects of farming back then. It is interesting to see land prices too. The book calls itself a "magazine" and covers July to December of 1836. It is hard bound and is more than 500 pages long (I guess that television has a lot to answer for these days by the look of our current crop of magazines!).

Hannah said...

Hi Peter. Our cabbage tree is happy - I think! in our garden it's almost 3 years old now and still at the lots of spikey leaves stage. I thiink it needs a name, maybe Colin the cabbage tree. Planted it when we got back from NZ.

Peter said...

Hi Hannah,
How exciting that you have a little bit of NZ growing in your garden! Colin sounds a great name, although, be aware that Colin may start wearing a grass skirt later in his life... I suppose it could be regarded as a kilt in his case!

Hannah said...

Ha, I hope he gets to the skirt wearing phase.
My rellies are coming down your way in January. I'm sending them your details, hope they'll pop in and say hello if you are around.

Peter said...

Hi Hannah,
I'm sure Colin will get to wear a skirt in a year or two, just keep talking to him!
We would be delighted to see your rellies if they get down to our part of NZ, it would be really fun to meet them. We are very likely to be around, but do let us know if you can when they will be likely to be here, and we can make sure that we are here to roll out the red carpet!

Best Wishes, P.