A Hardy Cordyline

by Marinus van den Berg, Veenendaal, Netherlands
Chamaerops No. 45, published online 29-01-2003

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Cordyline indivisa

In its native New Zealand, it grows mainly on the South Island, and reaches eight metres in height. The “mountain cabbage tree” or “broad-leaved cabbage tree” grows on mountain slopes, even along ski slopes. In Europe it can be seen in several botanical gardens in Cornwall, on The Isle of Wight, and in Northern Ireland in the arboretum in Castlewellan Forest Park and at Mount Stewart Gardens near Newtownards. The climate in these places is rather mild with no really hot summers. The Dutch summer can be rather hot and dry, so the plant needs protection from sunshine to grow well. East winds are always dry and warm in summer, and dry and cold in winter, so it also has to be protected from this wind.

Hard to get and to grow

Cordyline indivisa is a very impressive plant with a much more tropical look than any of the other Cordylines, and its level of hardiness is also better. Sounds good so far; but, unfortunately, it is very hard to obtain. Even the seeds are rare and I don’t know why. Another problem is that the names are almost always mixed up, so sowing the seeds is like playing the lottery. In New Zealand suppliers are very slow or simply not offering these seeds–you can get Dracaena indivisa (a.k.a. Cordyline australis), but not C. indivisa, which looks different. The leaves are broader than any other Cordyline and it has obvious thin orange stripes on the green grey leaves. If you do manage to obtain a plant, you’ll find that it dislikes summer heat very much, and most of the young plants will die with no plausible reason. Commercially growing C. indivisa is therefore seemingly impossible, and that’s a shame, because every exotic plant enthusiast should grow this very fine plant.

I was lucky enough to get a plant in the U.K. at Ventnor botanical gardens, and learned firsthand that it is hard to grow C. indivisa. It is beautiful together with Dicksonias and mountain bamboos, such as Chimonobambusa, Fargesia and Drepanostachyum. Look out for Chimonobambusa because it is a runner; don’t let it disturb the C. indivisa. The bamboos are great for keeping out cold and hot winds.

How to grow

C. indivisa needs a well prepared soil with lots of humus which must retain moisture but not become water logged. It needs a lot of space as a mature crown of leaves will spread over two metres. It needs to grow in shade or light shade. Of course it is not fully hardy here, but it is hardier than the books tell you. I’ve had my plant for three winters now, and it has never shown any damage, even though many palms (even Trachycarpus) have had damage! I protect it with some bracken or straw at the base of the plant. When the temperature drops below –10°C, I put some fleece around the leaves, but remove it as soon as the frost is over. I also tie the leaves together with rope. This protects them from frost and keeps them from drying out because of the freezing. I untie the leaves somewhere in February when there is no longer any chance of severe frost.

Cordyline australis

Cordyline australis is much easier to grow and to obtain, but it needs a warmer and sunnier place than C. indivisa with better drainage, and is also less hardy here. Most of the winters are too severe and many of the plants die back to the ground. Even though difficult to obtain and grow, C indivisa is the premier choice for colder climates.

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