A Touch of Class with Cordylines

The common name of cabbage tree is a little unfair when it comes to these sculptural and colourful cordyline hybrids…

In bygone days the ordinary Cordyline australis, a palm-like plant with narrow, lance-shaped leaves arranged in a large rosette, would have been one of the first plants recommended to gardeners looking for a dramatic accent plant – it’s tough enough to cope in almost any climate! Later Cordyline australis ‘Red Sensation’ became available, with its broad, maroon leaves. Many older urban gardens still boast either of these Cordylines (C. australis or ‘Red Sensation’), if not both.

These old toughies, which can grow to a height of about 5m, survived drought, floods, bitter cold and frost. Disease and pests never really affected them, and when cats used them as a scratching post they simply responded by sprouting new lateral branches from the wounded areas. (To persuade their cordylines to produce side branches, wily gardeners have been known to use a sharp bread knife to inflict the same type of damage!). Plant breeders have taken these perfect feature plants and hybridised them, producing the prettiest and most colourful new varieties. Most do not grow as large as the original species and are perfect for small gardens and pots.

Do cordylines flower?

When cordylines have reached a reasonable state of maturity they produce delicate, candelabra-like stems that carry small clusters of white or cream flowers, followed by berries. But this is not why cordylines are planted and appreciated in a garden.

Climatic concerns

In very cold climates young plants and some varieties must be protected against frost. In very dry and hot regions the colourful hybrids should rather be planted in light shade in a sheltered spot – whether in the ground or in containers – or the foliage will suffer from sunburn.

A year-round visual effect with cordylines

(Note that mature sizes will vary in different climates and conditions). 
  • ‘Electric Pink’: Splashes of vivid pink on a naturally multi-stemmed plant. Size about 1m x 1m.
  • ‘Southern Splendour’: Bronze green with definitive bright pink edges. Size about 2m x 1m. ‘Sunrise’: Vibrant shades of an African sunrise with a reddish-pink mid-rib and pink edges. Size about 2m x 1m.
  • ‘Torbay Dazzler’: Very variegated with striped cream and green leathery leaves. Tough plant! Size about 3m x 1.5m. ‘Can Can’: Multicoloured pink-and-red young leaves, unbelievingly maturing to cream and light green! Size about 1m x 1m.
  • ‘Cha Cha’: The new leaves are apricot, turning yellow and green as they mature. Size about 1m x 1m.
  • ‘Jive’: Strikingly striped lemon yellow and emerald green leaves with a soft, weeping habit. Size about 3m x 1m.

Growth requirements


Full sun or light shade is perfect. Cordylines are well suited to large containers and as striking accent plants in mixed borders. They combine beautifully with soft ornamental grasses and are great near a swimming pool. Their root systems are not aggressive and they are not messy plants.


Well-draining garden soil enriched with compost is recommended. Use good quality potting soil in containers.


Regular water will ensure very lush foliage, but never overdo it as these plants can survive dry periods once established, without losing their splendour. A general rating will be low to medium water usage.


Regular feeding during summer will result in healthy plants with bright and colourful foliage. Use a balanced, slow release fertiliser.

Good to know

  • Cordylines are tough, easy-to-grow plants, and transplant easily if you want to move them.
  • Pests and diseases seldom attack them.
  • To keep a cordyline neat, simply pluck the dead leaves from the base of the rosette. If the plant grows too tall or is too sparse, trim right across the main trunk below the rosette to encourage the formation of lateral branches and rosettes (if you have the heart to do this!).

The key to cordylines

  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Great for pots
  • Good for coastal conditions and wind
  • Tolerant of light frost and cold
  • Designer garden plants
  • Water-wise
The Gardener