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Australian Cordylines

Russell Young

The word Cordyline comes from the Greek 'kordyle', meaning a club, referring to the club-like stems of some species.

Robert Brown (1810) is credited with naming these plants "Cordyline". The name was accepted officially by the International Botanical Congress in Vienna in 1905. The "American Code" stayed with "Taetsia", as did many botanists until 1930, when botanists world-wide accepted the name "Cordyline".

Cordylines were previously in the lily family (Liliaceae), but now are placed officially in the Agavaceae family. This genus has leaves arranged spirally around the stem, usually in pairs.

There are fifteen named species to date, with other possible species under investigation. They range from large tree-like plants down to small shrubs, and one is an epiphyte. Eight species occur naturally in Australia. These are:

  • C.cannifolia
  • C.congesta - listed as rare
  • C.fruticosa - not in cultivation
  • C.manners-suttoniae
  • C.murchisoniae
  • C.petiolaris
  • C.rubra
  • C.stricta

Although these are mainly all green foliaged plants, some highly prized variegated forms have been found of C.rubra (several), C.petiolaris (several), C.manner-suttoniae (one), C.murchisoniae (one) and C.stricta (one).

Propagation is very easy with cordylines and can be done using one of four different methods:

  • from the tops of plants
  • from stem cuttings
  • from tuber cuttings
  • from seed

Generally, Australian native cordylines grown from seed take an average of three years to reach flowering stage. Fruits are ready to harvest when they are I soft and red, orange or black in colour, depending on the species.

    What's in a Name??
    Pacific Islanders call Cordylines "Ti" (pronounced - tee).
In Australia, native Cordylines are "palm lilies".
New Zealanders call them all "cabbage trees/palms".

Sow the small black seeds just below the soil in a pot and keep moist in a shaded area until germinated. Times vary depending on species, but most will take only a month if weather is warm. Seedlings should be transplanted into individual small pots after about five months. Using just about any fertilizer at normal strength should give good results.

Cordylines are very elegant and versatile plants and can be used in native bush gardens, open eucalypt forests, rainforest gardens, stylish architectural gardens, mixed in with exotics, as temporary indoor plants, or just about any part-shaded to well-lit area of the garden to provide interest using foliage form and very showy cascades of berries.

Many of the exotic hybrids which have coloured leaves were called C.terminalis, but are now officially C.fruticosa. The (original) species is not known in cultivation. Cordylines hybridise easily.

Cordyline fruticosa

Not in cultivation, little known.

Height: 2-3 metres tall, rarely to 5 metres. Fruits: red, 1cm. Mostly seen just single-stemmed. Leaves 25-80cm long x 5-12cm wide, petiole 8-20cm long. There are eleven known colonies growing in rainforest in the Cape York area. It also occurs across to New Guinea.

Cordyline cannifolia

Very variable. Height: from 0.6-3 metres, occasionally 5 metres. Fruits: red, 1cm. The dark green, lance-shaped leaves also vary a lot, between 20-50cm long and from 5-12cm wide. Petioles also vary from 5-20cm long. One reliable feature is the glaucous underside of the leaves, especially when alive. It occurs in rainforest and wet eucalypt forest in north Queensland, from Cape York to Rockhampton, including Mt. Lewis, It is also reported in the Northern Territory.

Cordyline manners-suttoniae

Height: 4 metres tall. Fruits: red, 1-1.5cm. Leaves 35-65cm long by 6-12cm wide. Not glaucous beneath. Petioles 12-30cm long. A noticeable feature is the older leaves developing yellow edges towards the top section of the leaves. Although this species grows naturally in swamp forest and rainforest from Cooktown to Rockhampton, it can tolerate dry spells.

Cordyline congesta

Listed as rare.

Height: 3 metres. Fruits: orange-red, 1-1.5cm. Has rough dentate edges to the petiole and about half the length of the leaf edges. Leaves are 30-40cm long by 2-4cm wide. Petioles 10-20cm long. It is found growing along the margins of, and in rainforest of extreme south-eastern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales.

Cordyline stricta
Cordyline stricta
Click for a larger image

Cordyline stricta

Height: to 5 metres. Fruits: black, 1-1.5cm. Has a sprawling habit of growth and is often branched towards the base. Strap-like leaves, 30-50cm long, 1-2cm wide, not or only slightly narrowed at the base. Although this species grows naturally in the Moreton area of southern Queensland, it is mainly found from the Queensland - New South Wales border to Sydney in coastal rainforest and wet eucalypt forest.

Cordyline rubra

Height: to 4 metres. Fruits: red, 1cm. Strap-like leaves are 15-50cm long by 3-4.5cm wide. Mainly identified by the flat and only slightly concave petioles which are between 5 and 20cm long. It grows naturally in rainforest and wet open forest, sometimes in sandy soils, from south-eastern Queensland to north-eastern New South Wales (from Bundaberg to Lismore). It is often seen growing alongside C.petiolaris, with which it sometimes hybridises.

Cordyline petiolaris
Cordyline petiolaris; fruit
Photo: Peter Sparshott
Click for a larger image

Cordyline petiolaris

Height: to 5 metres. Fruits: red, 0.7-1cm . Leaves are 45-85cm long, 6-15cm wide, sometimes longer. They are quite frayed at the tips. The inrolled petiole would have to be the most outstanding feature, and can be between 30 and 50cm long. It occurs naturally in south-eastern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales (south-west of Gladstone to about Kempsey) in wet eucalypt forest and rainforest.

Cordyline murchisoniae

Height: less than one metre. Fruits: red, 1cm. Often single-stemmed with a rather sprawling habit. Leaves only 10-15cm long and 3-5cm wide. Petiole 4-6cm. Occurs along the coastal strip from Babinda to Bundaberg in rainforests and nearby open, rather dry forests.


Cordyline Society notes, plus the following:

Tucker, Robert. Australia's Native Cordylines. The Queensland Gardener 1975. Reprinted in "Ti Talk", August 1998.

Flora of Australia Vol.46 (incl. AGAVACEAE). pp 8 1-86. Australian Government Publishing Service, 1986.

From the August 1999 newsletter of SGAP (Queensland Region)'s Samford Branch, via Queensland Region's Bulletin, September 1999.


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Australian Plants online - June 2002
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants