Cabbage Palm (Cordyline australis)

This is also known as the Torbay Palm, which is the official symbol of the English Riviera. It is a popular ornamental tree, more a woody stemmed evergreen shrub, with corky fissured bark, and stiff swordlike leaves which take about five years before they die and hang down, below the actively growing top, and can be tidied up. They can grow very tall, but usually between 20’ to 40’.

The plant is a native uniquely of New Zealand, (australis means ‘southern’), and is one of the two or three palm like trees that will grow in Northern Europe. When a good size, often after growing a side branch, it produces a strong framework of a large sweet smelling florescence, each head can contain 6,000 to 10,000 small scented flowers, bearing up to 40,000 seeds. The flowers last for up to six weeks, often in alternate years, with a bumper crop (as last summer) every three to five years. They do not easily have the berry fruit here, but the seed-laden trusses are strong enough to bear even the weight of heavy pigeons. In winter in New Zealand, these large white berries are a great attraction for birds

This species is native to New Zealand. It was cultivated freely as it produces good fruits and is easy to grow in well drained soil. When put out in neat rows, the young plants some say, were thought by sailors and visitors to look from a distance like so many rows of cabbages, or also because the edible rhizomes at the base of the tree, when cooked, tasted of almonds with a cabbagey flavour..The plants need to be spaced out, not shaded, and in well drained soil. In fact the numbers growing near homesteads and gardens could very well indicate the fertility of the local soil when seeking areas for further development.

The indigenous people found that the leaves have a fibrous nature which is durable and can be used for textiles, anchor ropes, fishing lines and the leaves can be woven into baskets. Later visitors found the plant could be used to make alcohol.

While the trees can be planted in tubs or containers when not too large, they should not be planted near buildings because of their suckering habit. There are now many coloured forms and hybrids , but the bronze leaf varieties are susceptible to frost.

There are specimens near Dulwich Library, in the Park and in Kingswood Drive. The other palm like tree seen locally is the Chusan palm (from China) which is easily distinguished by its bark which has a soft fibrous woolly look.

Jill Manuel

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