The last few years, cordylines have seen a remarkable uptick in popularity. Cordyline is a funny name to pronounce, and if you go online, you’ll find at least three different suggestions. The common names are also simply crazy: false dracaena, cabbage tree, and cabbage palm, to name a few. Lastly as you would probably guess, they are in the asparagus family. I say that a little tongue-in-cheek, but it’s true. I need my graduate taxonomic professor to explain that to me again.
The common names, strange as they sound, do give a glimpse into their native nature, which I’ll explain. When it comes to the landscape, however, there is no mystery as cordylines offer tantalizing texture and color delivering a sensational performance all summer.
Take, for instance, Red Sensation, Cordyline australis, one of the most popular at the garden center. It is native to New Zealand, where it is found as a tree reaching over 60 feet in height. Most of us in the United States grow it as an annual, and one that is worth every penny. In zones 8a and warmer we may see it survive the winter, and of course it’s even more probable in the warmer locales. We use it like a dracaena or a yucca with swordlike leaves in variations of red, bronze or red variegation. It was discovered by the famed plant explorer Sir Joseph Banks on his sails with Captain Cook.
I say that as a segue to one of the most stunning cordylines offered in the United States: Electric Pink, a selection of Cordyline banksii, indeed named for the explorer. Electric Pink stands out from a great distance with its maroon leaves that are edged in a shocking hot pink. It is clump forming and reaches 2 to 4 feet tall and as wide. It is so unique one nursery calls it an electric pink grass tree.
One of the most beautiful plantings I have ever seen had it as the thriller plant in a large mixed container and paired with the Sweet Caroline Sweetheart ornamental sweet potato with the equally colorful lime green foliage cascading over the rim. It too has reports of returning from the winter in zone 8.
Lastly, The Garden Guy is most mesmerized by the Hawaiian Ti plant, Cordyline fruticosa. Just to add to the mystery, you may be thinking this is pronounced “tie,” but indeed it is “tea,” not to be confused however with tea, which is a camellia. It also has the common name “good luck plant.” That’s reason enough to buy one this spring.
The Hawaiian Ti is often grown as a house plant indoors. This certainly gives you the option of having the look of the islands outdoors by the pool, on the patio or deck and then relocating indoors for the winter ahead.
Crazily, most references suggest zone 9 and warmer for a spring return, but we’ve seen it three consecutive years in zone 8, specifically Columbus, Ga. Consider in Hawaii where they might reach 12 feet tall or more and look rather naked along the trunk; they are often topped at about 6 inches above ground where they quickly flush.
The leaves have been used in hula skirts, the rhizomes eaten as a starch and used as the key ingredient of an alcohol beverage. Most of the continental U.S. will grow the Hawaiian Ti in the neighborhood of 4 to 10 feet in height. Red Sister and generic seem to be the prevalent opportunities in my area, but there are some really interesting named varieties to be found.
No matter the species or variety you select know that as a thriller plant in a mixed container they are unmatched. In the landscape that create instant excitement. Grow your cordyline in fertile, organic, rich, well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight. Afternoon shade is tolerated. These plants promise to be riveting during the long hot summer ahead.
(Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.)