Cabbage trees are a type of tree lily, like agave, yucca, and dracaena. Their tufted heads are familiar beacons in New Zealand landscapes.
Cabbage trees grow throughout the country, from sea level to about 1,000 metres, but are most common on the coast and lowlands. They grow singly or in groves on open forest margins as well as in swamps and along lake margins and river terraces. They often colonise openings in forests that have been created by disturbances, but they are eventually shaded out. The many cabbage trees now growing in paddocks and on bare hillsides are survivors from earlier land clearances and the creation of drainage for farming.
Cabbage trees all produce branched flowering stems laden with cream-coloured, highly scented flowers in spring or early summer. These are followed by white to blue-mottled berries in late summer and autumn.
Food and fibre
Natural and planted groves of tī trees were harvested by Māori for food, particularly in the south where growing kūmara (sweet potato) was marginal. The growing tips or leaf hearts were stripped of leaves and eaten raw or cooked. Young stems and roots were steam-cooked in earth ovens to yield nutritious sugars. Their strong, strappy leaves produced tougher fibre than that of harakeke (New Zealand flax). Uses included ropes, cooking mats and baskets, waterproof rain capes and cloaks, and sandals.
Tī kōuka – cabbage tree
Tī kōuka (Cordyline australis) is the most common cabbage tree and can live for hundreds of years. It is one of the largest tree lilies in the world, sometimes growing to be massive (up to 20 metres high with trunks 1.5–2 metres in diameter). Old specimens may be multi-stemmed, with such stems growing from vegetative sprouts at the base of the parent tree. Tī kōuka’s narrow, tough leaves are frost and wind resistant, and the bark is rough and cork-like. This species is found throughout New Zealand, except for Fiordland.
Tī ngahere – forest cabbage tree
More shrubby than tree-like, the forest cabbage tree (C. banksii) produces stems or branches close to the ground and grows only four metres high. This species is common in wet sites, in coastal, lowland, and montane forests throughout the North Island and the north-west South Island.
Tōī – mountain cabbage tree
The mountain cabbage tree (C. indivisa) is easily distinguished from common cabbage tree, as it has much broader, blue-green leaves, mostly unbranched trunks, and flowering stems that develop below the leaf tuft. It reaches about eight metres in height.
It grows in open spaces and in gully heads in wet montane forest and subalpine scrub. This cabbage tree is found from southern Auckland to Fiordland, though in the South Island it grows mostly to the west of the Southern Alps.