Cabbage Trees - New Zealand Icon

Cabbage Tree -  ti kouka

Fern, flax and cabbage trees - New Zealand icons

John Keast/ The Press/ NZPA | Saturday, 21 July 2007 Summarised
The cabbage tree once a common site across rural New Zealand is dying out. Many are dying of old age. They can live up to 150 years. Many farmers have a passion for planting trees and now it is time to plant cabbage trees to save then for future generations from the ravages of grazing livestock, disease and natural attrition.  The patron of Project Ti Kouka is Fiona Lady Elworthy of Timaru, whose property Craigmore has cabbage trees in covenant. On Craigmore three areas, two small and one large, have been covenanted under the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust. The smallest, the Airini Woodhouse Covenant, contains eight old cabbage trees, and approximately eighty young ones, as well as silver tussocks. The first project backer is an Australian-based firm called Computershare that distributes its annual reports electronically to save paper and trees, and which sponsors environmental projects through a programme known as eTree, administered. An On-Farm Research project in Canterbury is using cabbage tree seed to determine the best varieties for propagation. Mr McGregor, Hawkes Bay, is also digging deep for the project. He has a small trial plot on a research farm just south of Hastings where he has 500 cabbage tree plants in the ground. A short distance away on the property he has planted cabbage tree "poles", similar to the common method for propagating poplars and willows in situ – in the paddock among grazing stock.

Ti Kouka

Young cabbage trees, toi-toi and flax at Patiti Point (behind the Caledonian Grounds and Timaru Cemetery)
See the breakers on South Beach through the trees.  Photo taken 25 January, 2008 by M.T.

A grove of cabbage trees at Patiti Point - more than five cabbage trees spaced less than four times their height.

The cabbage tree is itself an iconic New Zealand tree that is acknowledged internationally as both aesthetically pleasing and botanically interesting.  Kereru, native pigeons, feed on the berries of  the trees. Below the same group of cabbage trees blooming at the end of November 2008. When they flower so profusely it is going to be a dry summer.

Stock are one of the worst enemies of the cabbage tree, ring-barking the trunk with their rubbing and flattening the ground around its base, where a dying plant would normally send up fresh shoots. Any shoots which manage to surface are quickly grazed. To protect the cabbage tree poles use a cylinder of deer-netting hotwired to an electric fence. Planting poles with their leaves stripped and just a growing tip left didn't work. He's had more success with completely bare poles, finding that the leaves and roots need to grow in unison.

Cabbage trees in flower end of November 2008 at Patiti Point. Photo taken by Margaret Todd.

The New Zealand cabbage tree (cordyline australis) was named by the crew of Captain Cook after seeing Maori break open the spike of unopened leaves at its tip to reveal an artichoke or cabbage-like heart which was boiled and eaten. It is one of the largest of all tree lilies. It survived bush-clearing fires because of its ability to renew its trunks rapidly from buds on rhizomes beneath the soil and even apparently dead specimens will suddenly send up a new shoot in a determined bid to survive. Maori used cabbage trees to mark trails and for food and fibre. Early settlers used their fronds to make shelters; colonial dwellers frequently had specimens in their gardens. The front of Parliament buildings are lined with them, they are commonly used to mark Maori burial grounds and feature prominently in Maori history and legend.

"It is a symbol of our roots,"

In the 1980s, reports of cabbage trees suddenly dying in northern parts of New Zealand triggered a number of investigations into the cause. Scientists concluded that parasitic bacteria, transmitted by sap-sucking insects, were probably to blame. The insect responsible for passing on the disease, known as Sudden Decline, is unknown, although the Australian passionvine hopper is a strong suspect. The disease has passed its peak, with few cases reported these days.

In urban areas cabbage trees look nice but their fibrous dead leaves wreak havoc with lawnmowers. Cabbage trees growing in protected clumps on farmland can provide shade, shelter and beauty to a sometimes bare landscape.

 a "real Kiwi", linking the natural world of New Zealand to the cultures introduced by both Maori and Pakeha.

The native wood pigeons just loved this cabbage tree. Photo taken by me.
"Holmwood" Te Moana, Geraldine
-mornings are alive with the sounds of native birds and magpies from the nearby native bush clad gully.

The cabbage tree was, they said,
dead. There was nothing they
or anyone could do
now or any day -
how sorry they
were, and sad.

But the cabbage tree heard them -
they never noticed
it shaking its head:
it shook so hard
stars were said to have spread
from where the cabbage tree stood:
A blossoming, new constellation across that night sky south.

Someone said just
some fires
you can't put out.

Friday, 23-March 2001 NZPA
Sam Hunt's poem, Old Flames, was probably inspired by Sudden Decline, the term used over the past decade when thousands of cabbage trees have died. Identified as a "tree lily", Cordyline australis can be traced back more than 15 million years when tropical plants were growing in New Zealand and other islands. As temperatures cooled, many of the plants died off, but Cordyline species survived. Cabbage trees settled on open lands in low valleys. As people arrived, the trees were valued and cultivated for their beauty and strength, nutritional value and the long, flax-like leaves which could be weaved into ropes or baskets. Birds, like wood pigeon, bell birds and fan tails, nest in cabbage trees and nine species of native insects are found only on Cordyline plants. Cabbage trees need a fertile soil to grow. Few cabbage trees grow in Southland, but those lining streets in Invercargill were planted in Victorian days. Most people love cabbage trees in their gardens. They enjoy their symmetrical shape, their long green leaves and their movement and noise in the wind, the perfumed flowers and the birds they attract. Wood pigeons are attracted by the flowers.  They should be planted away from old water and drainage systems, though, because the tree rootlets can grow in wet conditions and sometimes penetrate cracks in underground pipes.

Cabbage trees can be propagated from a piece of underground rhizome, a length of branch or from a felled trunk laid in a mulch. They are also easily grown from seed collected when the fruit is ripe. To remove fruit skins and flesh, squash it and clean seed under running water. Sow in a free-draining potting mix and germination should occur in about a month. Transplant into narrow, deep pots and keep in sunny, frost-free place, watering regularly and guarding against snail attacks. Cabbage tree seedlings can be planted out within a year.

20 miles west from Timaru is the farming district Maungati.
Maungati, is Maori for mountain or hill of the cabbage tree.

Philip Simpson's book, Dancing Leaves, the story of New Zealand's cabbage tree, ti kouka, / Philip Simpson, printed 2000, col. illus. (Canterbury University Press). "They stand there in the wind, chattering and rustling incessantly amongst themselves as if nothing matters, taking what nature gives them."

Cabbage Tree Flat is the original name for Burkes Pass 

Cabbage trees Totara valley about to bloom, 14 Nov. 2009. Photo taken by M.T.

Fire danger 'explosive'
19 January 2004 by Jill Worrall, Timaru Herald
The nor-west winds that battered South Canterbury yesterday have heightened the fire danger to "explosion point". And, although most people are being extra careful, rural and town fire officers are concerned about a small, irresponsible minority who could be placing lives and property at risk. Of most concern in Timaru were two incidents in which trees in private gardens were deliberately set alight early yesterday. A cabbage tree was set alight in Victoria Street just before 6am and while the crew were extinguishing that they were directed to Heaton Street where a conifer was also on fire. "Whoever did this is pushing their luck. The sparks from the cabbage tree were travelling up to 20 metres in the wind. It could have been extremely dangerous and threatened property, which could mean lives as well. It's lives we are most worried about." No one should underestimate how dry trees and other vegetation around the city was or how quickly a small fire could turn into a potentially life-threatening blaze.

"A domestic icon. While the cabbage tree is at home in suburbia as it is in the bush it is as fragile in its evolution as the average pavlova."

Timaru Hospital abbout 1903
Timaru Hospital about 1907. A.A. Ware Co. postcard.

I love bonny Scotland and England's blest shore,
But love the fair land of the Maori still more :
With its flax and its fern and its rare cabbage tree,
Blue shirts and sunbonnets,
New Zealand for me.
New Zealand for me.

Otago Witness 10 August 1861, Page 5

I love bonny Scotland, and England's blest shore,
But I love the new land of the Maori more,
Where labour's a blessing, and freedom's supreme,
And peace and contentment endears every scene.
With its flax, and its fern, and rare cabbage tree,
Its freedom, — its blessings — New Zealand, for me

Like a child of old Ocean, surrounded by sea,
Is the land of New Zealand, the home of the free :
Its wide spreading valleys, and cloud-capped hills ;
Its beautiful rivers, and by the-sounding rills.
With its flax, &c.

The land of the goi tree, mapu, and pine,
The stately totara, and blooming wild vine ;
Where the birds, sporting cheerily all the day long,
Make the woods ring and echo the voice of their song.
With its flax, &c.

Where the Englishman's cot rises safe to the view
Surrounded with flowers, of each varying hue
And his fields, waving yellow with earth's golden spoils
Make his home circle happy and sweetens his toil.
Bright land of the south ! fairest gem of the sea!
Like branch from the stem of old England the free,
May thy name be enrolled in the annuals of fame
And spread a halo round, the old English name.

Kaikorai, J.B.

Otago Witness , 22 September 1909, Page 51
Otago Peninsula, resident believes the late Mr M'Kay, of his district, was the author of the song, and referred us to his son Mr R. L. M'Kay, of Normanby street and daughter, produced a copy.

"New Zealand for Me."
I love bonnie Scotland and England's blest shore,
But I love the new land of the Maori far more;
Where labour's a blessing and health reigns supreme,
And peace and contentment endear every scene.

Wi' its flax and its fern,
And rare cabbage tree,
Blue shirts and sunbonnets—
New Zealand for me.

The land of the kowhai tree, maple, and pine,
And blue bully-bully and sweet blooming vine
Where the birds whistle cheerily all day long,
And the wild woods re-echo the voice of their song.

Wi' its flax and its fern, etc.

Where the workman's cottage stands neat to the view,
Surrounded by wild flowers of each varying hue;
And his fields laden plenty with earth's golden spoil
Makes his home circle happy and sweetens his toil.

Wi' its flax and its fern, etc.

Cabbage Tree sculptured in corrugated iron by Jeff Thomson 2005, Nelson. Photo Dec 2014.
John F. Perry, in the foreword of the book Jeff Thomson - Any Old Iron says "He has almost single-handedly taken corrugated iron off the roof and put in on the wall and the pedestal."

Russell Clark said cabbage trees are good paintable objects, he exhibited a series of painting on them in 1953.

South Canterbury NZGenWeb Project

CHCH  - Maori