Cordyline banksii - The Forest Cabbage Tree

A profile of this little known relative of Cordyline australis.
by Peter Richardson, Advanced Technologies Ltd., Science Park, Cambridge, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 11, published online 23-09-2002

Above: Wild plants of Cordyline banksii in the Kauaeranga Valley, New Zealand
Below: Cordyline banksii in cultivation in Cambridge (left). On the right is Cordyline australis

I thought I would bring this New Zealand species of cabbage tree to the attention of Chamaerops readers because it seems to be the Ignored Species. Garden centres the length of the U.K. sell C australis, even where it has little hope of surviving outside, and enthusiasts pay inflated sums for plants of C indivisa and C. caspar, but no one pays any attention to C banksii, even in New Zealand.

It has a unique combination of an elegant, 'tropical' appearance with at least equal frost hardiness to the provenances of C. australis commonly grown in the U.K. Its looks ally it with the tropical C. terminals in that the leaves are inserted in just two twisted ranks, opposite and alternate, and are differentiated into a distinct, long petiole and a blade, as opposed to the yucca-like leaf insertion of C. australis, C. indivisa and C. caspar.

It is not a compact plant; on my largest plant growing outdoors in Cambridge the petioles are 40cm long and the blades are up to 120cm long, so the leaves are 1.6m long altogether. This gives the crowns a significantly larger spread than those of C. australis, and they can in fact be a problem to accommodate in a small garden. The petioles have a U-shaped cross section and are held at an acute angle to the stem, and the blades, which have a pronounced midrib, flop out and down gracefully. They have a shiny upper surface. The two ranks of leaves only start to twist after the first year in most individuals, so young plants have a striking, flat, fan-like array of leaves in the manner of the Traveller's Palm, Ravenala madagascariensis. The twist gradually tightens as the trunk grows taller.

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