Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham
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Cordyline fruticosa - Ti
This article was published in Alfresco Magazine September 2004
I have tendencies.
Towards ti. I've been collecting them from all over NZ, Australia and the Pacific for decades. They are glamorous and dramatic and their story is intricately tied to the human story of our region.
In the Pacific islands the brilliant foliage of the ti plant is a feature of every garden from the grandest resort to the remotest village.
Ti is a cabbage tree, Cordyline fruticosa, one of about fifteen species in the Pacific and South-east Asian region. New Zealand has five of these, including the largest, our iconic ti kouka, so common that we scarcely register its spectacular beauty in almost every landscape.
Cordyline fruticosa, 'ti', is tropical, probably originating in Papua-New Guinea, but spread throughout the Pacific several thousand years ago by the earliest settlers, who valued it for food, clothing and decoration.
The wild green form grows about 3m high, with sword-shaped leaves a metre or more long and up to 150mm wide, clustered spirally at the end of each stem. It forms a bushy clump by suckering.
Its possible that early Maori settlers brought it here too and lost it in the colder conditions, but they certainly did bring another hardier species they called ti pore, Cordyline stricta, which was also traditionally grown in the Pacific as a source of sweetness before the introduction of sugar cane. Ti pore is still a feature of many old NZ gardens where its handsome, drooping green foliage and suckering tendencies make it a lush and reliable filler in tough conditions.
All the Cordylines have a tendency (I like tendencies...) to produce bright colour mutations and over the centuries people have exploited this to produce some extraordinarily vivid cultivars of ti. They can be orange, scarlet or pink as well as more muted yellows, cream or bronze, some of them almost black. The most spectacular are the pinks, but sadly these are also the most delicate in the cold. However, they can be grown here in the warmest parts of NZ if they're given shelter, light shade and perfect drainage.
A stunning ti called 'Fiji' grows quite comfortably in Northland and Auckland, its leaves emerging pale green but steadily changing through apricot and orange to rich red. Another tough form, known here as 'Studmuffin', has chunky rounded leathery leaves emerging a rich coppery bronze and aging to a lustrous dark green.
'Black Prince' is big, tough and purple-black although its new leaves are delicately green, striped with pink.
Many beautiful forms are sold as house-plants in NZ but will often do well outdoors given dappled shade to protect them from the fierce Spring sun when they can scorch and shrivel drastically. Full sun in Summer and Autumn seems to be no problem.
Probably the worst problem with these extravagant beauties is snails and slugs. They completely shred the leaves into oblivion unless you take stringent measures. Blue slug pellets lodged in the centre of each head of leaves does the trick. This works just as well for our native Cordylines too.
Tropical Cordylines can give a sheltered, lightly shaded garden dramatic architectural form and vivid colour all year.
Give them a try. You might find you have tendencies too.
(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2006)