New Zealand Plants and their Story
The cabbage-tree (Cordyline australis) is a most familiar feature in almost any New Zealand landscape, while it is also a favourite adornment of gardens, supplying there a special beauty of form generally lacking in the temperate vegetation:
But, although the plant m question is known so well, it may yet be news to some that it is no relative of the wholesome vegetable whose name it bears. It, on the contrary, -belongs to the same family as the Madonna lily, the hyacinth, and the tulip; or, if we must seek its relations below stairs, then to the onion, the garlic, and the shalot, whilst amongst its first cousins it boasts such useful members of society as aloes, squills, and sarsaparilla. Now, it is the structure of the flowers which places it in this most distinguished company, the outer floral, leaves being united at the base,* but divided above into six segments, the stamens also six in number; while the central portion of the flower, which finally contains the seeds, is three-chambered. At the same time, it differs from most of its kith and kin in its possession of a tall, erect trunk, being, in fact, a tree-or palm-lily, this latter page 138designation having been bestowed on account of its tropical-looking habit, for it is not really a palm.
Fig. 60.—Underground stem of Cabbage-tree, with numerous roots.
[Photo, L. Cockayne.
The dead leaves of the cabbage-tree are scrupulously removed every year by the tidy but too zealous gardener, and a long, naked stem results. Nature, however, loves not nakedness in any form— the bare rock she clothes with lichens, and the fallen giant of the forest with moss; so, too, she hides-the upper portion of our tree's trunk with a not inelegant covering of brown dead leaves. Nor is she mindful of beauty alone in so doing, for these leaves become saturated with moisture when the welcome rain falls, the trunk on its part putting forth many short but active roots, which must assist the leaves materially to the all-important water-supply hi dry weather. As for the leaves themselves, they are provided with a strong, fibrous skeleton, which enables them to defy the frequent gales; also, they are more or less erect, and thus escape the full force of the sun's rays—a decided benefit in the long, hot summer days; and, finally, their minute structure is such as to guard them against excessive loss of moisture in times of drought.
Fig. 61.—The Broad-leaved Cabbage-tree, or Ti (Cordyline indivisa). Mount Hauhnngatahi.
Lands Department.] [Photo, L. Cockayne.
The genus Cordyline is somewhat widespread, its species being found wild in southern Asia, the Malay Archipelago, the Pacific islands, Australia, New Zealand, and South America. The special species we are considering, C. australis, is confined to New Zealand; but, though it is extremely abundant in the two main Islands, and its fruits are readily spread by birds, it is found in only one locality in Stewart Island, and does not occur at all in either the subantarctic islands or the Chatham Islands.
There are four other species of Cordyline in New Zealand, one of which, the toi (C. indivisa) (fig. 61), is a magnificent object, with its broad, arching leaves furnished with a conspicuous orange-coloured midrib. It is common at rather high levels in the North Island, but descends to sea-level in the South at the Otago Sounds. On the east of the South Island are a few plants on Banks Peninsula. Where the service road to the Main Trunk line has been made along the base of ice-capped Ruapehu, and the forest has been cleared, are splendid natural plantations of this beautiful tree, which grows in some places, indeed, by the thousand.
The common cabbage-tree is easy of cultivation. It will grow in almost any kind of soil, and may be readily raised from seed, this being the best method to secure a stock of plants. When a tree is cut down level with the ground it does not die, but will usually put forth new shoots from the underground stem. Even at an early age it is very ornamental, and young specimens, whose trunks are not yet developed, are eminently suitable for small gardens. There is a purplish-leaved variety, and also one with variegated foliage. Moreover, the cabbage-tree is a variable species, and many forms distinct for garden purposes may be met with in the wild state.
In a land where the natural vegetable products were not of much economic value, the most unlikely plants were pressed into the service of the aborigines, and any possessing the slightest beneficial property were made use of. The cabbage-tree, or, as the Maoris designated it, page 142the ti, tikauka, or tirahau, served several purposes. The underground stem, since it contained a large supply of starch, supplied a nutritious if not an especially palatable kind of food, and the leaves were plaited into flat or round ropes. In the north, however, C. pumilio was much more prized for food. Cordyline indivisa was still more esteemed for its fibre, which, according to Colenso, was woven into a durable mat called toii, which was dyed black.
In Europe the cabbage-tree is much prized for horticultural purposes, though it is hardy only in the warmer parts. In the Scilly Isles it is used for hedges, making wind-screens to the fields of daffodils, there grown so extensively for the London market. Strange to say, many New Zealand plants, the cabbage-tree amongst the number, grow luxuriantly in the Isle of Arran, Scotland, which are only half-hardy farther south: a fact which recalls Stewart Island, where in certain parts trees peculiar to northern Auckland are cultivated with success, but which cannot endure the climate of the Canterbury coast.
* The coloured leaves of the flower in the lily family are in two series, and in certain of the genera are not united below into a tube.