Cordyline is a bold and handsome evergreen shrub that slowly develops a tree-like form. It has a dramatic and exotic appearance with an attractive architectural shape, forming either a single trunk or multiple stems topped with dense tufts of long, narrow, leathery leaves. Cordyline is sometimes known as cabbage palm, New Zealand cabbage tree or Torbay palm, although it isn’t actually a palm tree or anything to do with a cabbage.
The most widely grown species is Cordyline australis which is native to New Zealand. It has plain green leaves, although there’s a range of cultivars with variegated, coloured or multi-coloured foliage. Green-leaved forms are largest and fastest-growing and can reach around 5 metres high. Coloured and variegated varieties are less vigorous and rarely grow larger than 2.5-3 m high, and less when grown in containers.
While foliage is the main appeal of cordylines, mature plants can also produce large clusters of tiny creamy-white flowers in summer.
How to grow cordyline
Despite the exotic appearance of cordylines, they are reasonably hardy and can survive the winter outside in mild areas or sheltered sites outside with winter temperatures down to around -5° C. They do best in well-drained soil.
In cold regions, grow cordylines in pots and then move them under cover for winter, or wrap them to protect them from frost.
Growing cordylines: jump links
- Where to grow cordyline
- How to care for cordylines
- How to propagate cordylines
- Growing cordylines: problem-solving
- Cordylines to grow
Where to grow cordyline
Grow cordyline as a specimen plant in a lawn or border where its strong vertical shape makes a handsome contrast to other plants. Cordylines with green leaves do best in full sun while those with coloured leaves do best in light shade. They must be sheltered from cold winds, apart from in milder seaside locations where cordyline grows well and is tolerant of salt-laden winds.
Cordyline plants can also be grown in pots and if the container is sufficiently large (such as the size of a wooden half barrel) a cordyline can remain in the same one for a number of years. Cordylines are likely to outgrow smaller pots in a year or two and need moving up to a larger pot or planting out in the ground.
How to care for cordylines
Cordyline plants gradually develop their characteristic trunk as they mature. The lower leaves yellow and die off to expose the growing trunk and should be gently pulled or trimmed off.
Cordyline plants growing in the ground are tolerant of drought once established, but new plants should be kept watered during dry spells for their first growing season. Apply a general slow-release fertilizer in spring.
Cordylines growing in pots should always be regularly watered so the compost is kept evenly moist but take care not to over-water. To avoid water building up in the pot, either stand pots on gravel or raise just off the ground so excess water drains freely.
Feed plants in pots either by applying a single dose of controlled-release fertilizer, in early spring, or make monthly applications of liquid fertilizer through spring and summer.
When should I prune a cordyline?
Daniel Haynes, gardenersworld.com, explains how and when to prune your cordyline, in our Quick Tips video:
Winter care of cordyline
Cordylines can survive temperatures of around -5° C but foliage can be disfigured by cold winds and frosts. Wrapping plants for the winter protects the leaves from damage and gives protection to the growing point of the plant. Wrap plants after a dry spell of weather to avoid trapping moisture under the covering which can cause rot. Using a non-abrasive tie such as soft string, raffia or discarded nylon tights, start at the top of the trunk and wind upwards round the leaves so they are pulled upwards into a point. Then, wrap the plant in horticultural fleece – the thickest grade or ‘frost fleece’ is best. Remove the wrapping and ties in late winter when the weather starts to warm up.
Cordyline plants growing in pots can be wrapped up, including the pot, if it’s not possible to move plants under cover. The best site for pots is in the shelter of a building, ideally against a south facing wall and standing right against the house if possible, which gives added protection against frost.
How to propagate cordyline
Cordyline australis can be grown from seed, although it does take years to develop sizeable plants.
Large, established cordyline plants may produce suckers – these are shoots that arise from the base of the plant – which can be propagated to make new plants. Use a sharp knife to detach the sucker from the parent plant and pot them into small containers of cuttings compost mixed with grit, perlite or vermiculite. Grow on a well-lit windowsill or in a greenhouse and plant out the following year.
Growing cordyline: problem solving
Given the right growing conditions, cordylines are generally trouble-free of pests and diseases. If the soil is too wet, cordylines can rot at the base of the stem where it meets the ground.
Frost damage can disfigure foliage, sometimes killing the top growing part of the plant. The damage may be confined to the leaves or some or all of the stem can be killed during severe cold spells. In mid spring, once it’s obvious which parts of the plant are clearly dead, remove the dead leaves or stem, either sawing part-way down the trunk or just cutting off the dead foliage. Cordylines often regrow and new buds produced from the remaining trunk, or from the ground.
Slime flux is a problem that is caused by frost damage and is clearly obvious as an unpleasant-smelling ooze develops from the affected area. Remove the affected part of the plant, cutting below it into healthy growth.
Advice for buying cordyline
Here’s our guide to buying the right cordyline for your garden, including where to buy cordylines.
- Cordylines are available from garden centres and nurseries. Bear in mind that you may get more choice if you buy your cordyline from a specialist nursery
- Research the height and spread of your cordyline, which will give you an idea of how it’s going to grow into its space
- Check that the space you intend to grow it is sheltered and sunny enough to support a cordyline. If you live in a colder region of the British Isles, you may need to protect it in winter.
Where to buy cordylines online
Cordyline varieties to grow
- Cordyline australis – broad green leaves and fast growth habit to develop trunks and bear flowers
- Cordyline australis ‘Albertii’ – multi-coloured leaves which are green, veined with red in the middle, striped with cream and edged pink
- Cordyline australis ‘Purple Tower’ – a dark shade of plum-purple
- Cordyline australis ‘Red Star’ – colourful bronze-red foliage
- Cordyline australis ‘Southern Splendour’ – unusual bi-coloured leaves, dark greyish green with bright pink edges
- Cordyline australis ‘Sundance’ – green leaves with a bright pink central stripe
- Cordyline australis ‘Torbay Dazzler’ – green leaves which are boldly striped with cream