Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Cabbage tree

with 17 comments

Cabbage Tree by Pond 7514

Looking to a foreigner—especially from a distance—like a palm tree, the cabbage tree, which the Māori call tī kōuka,* is not a palm. No, botanists place Cordyline australis in the recently aggrandized family Asparagaceae, whose Agavoideae subfamily includes the yucca familiar to Texans. If you’d like to know more about the cabbage tree, which is among the most distinctive plants in New Zealand, read on. Notice also the cattail, or raupō, Typha orientalis, toward the lower left.

I photographed this cabbage tree on February 25th a little northeast of Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island.

UPDATE. I should have explained the familiar name. In the words of T.E.R.R.A.I.N.: “The crown is made up of long, bare branches carrying bushy heads of large, grass like leaves up to a meter long. Early settlers used the young leaves from the centre of these heads as a substitute for cabbage – hence the common name.”


* A bar (technically called a macron) over a vowel indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced for a longer time than regular vowels. Many languages (but not English) make a distinction between long vowels and regular vowels, so that would be a different word from pa and have a different meaning.

Also like many languages, Māori has five vowels, whose pronunciations I’ll spell out as we might write them in English: a (ah), e (eh), i (ee), o (oh), u (oo). In effect, Māori has the same five vowels as Spanish.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 17, 2015 at 6:03 AM

17 Responses

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  1. I have a photo of cabbage trees in NZ which I thought looked very much like the quiver trees in southern Africa that belong to the aloe family. Mine doesn’t have the shedding bark that yours has. I assume these are different to the cabbage palms that grow in Australia since they do appear to have a palm-like trunk. Oh, life was much simpler when I identified everything as ‘flower’, ‘tree’ ‘climber’…


    March 17, 2015 at 6:52 AM

    • You and the next commenter asked about the trunk. I did generally see cabbage trees with what looked to me like real trunks. For example, here’s one from Kerikeri on February 5th:

      I’d not heard of quiver trees, which I looked up and found to be in the same botanical order as the cabbage tree.

      Yes, from experience I’ll agree that life was a lot simpler with categories like flower and tree.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 17, 2015 at 8:19 AM

  2. It does look like a yucca. It also reminds me of another desert tree/shrub whose name eludes me right now. If I think of it later I will add a comment.
    I like the way the old leaves drape and protect(?) the lower plant. Does it have a bark or do those hanging leaves shield it from hazard?

    Steve Gingold

    March 17, 2015 at 7:03 AM

    • I’ll bet you’re thinking of the Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia. In answer to your question about the trunk, see how I answered Jude’s comment right before yours. I wish I could tell you both more about the growth habits of the cabbage tree, but although I saw many of them I wasn’t there through the seasons to get a feel for how they develop.

      Your comment and Jude’s have left me hoping that what I showed in today’s post really is a cabbage tree and not some exotic that somebody planted.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 17, 2015 at 8:25 AM

  3. Beautiful. And that was hard for me to say because I am not a fan of the cabbage tree. Love the contrast of spiky leaves with the soft, curvaceous foliage in the background.


    March 17, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    • I’d originally planned to show the photograph that now appears in my reply to Jude (above), but the background in this one is so much nicer, as you’ve pointed out. The pond didn’t hurt things either.

      Who knows, perhaps you’re inching (centimetering) toward becoming a fan of the cabbage tree.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 17, 2015 at 9:50 AM

  4. We were always brought up with the joke that babies were born under the cabbage trees (much like the stork in Europe), Birds love these trees as they have a great cover for their nests.

    Raewyn's Photos

    March 17, 2015 at 5:40 PM

    • Ah, a bit of New Zealand folklore I knew nothing about. The United States has (or at least used to have) the same stork story as Europe (not surprisingly, because so many Americans have been of European origin or ancestry).

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 17, 2015 at 7:31 PM

  5. I don’t know what I expected to find when I read “cabbage tree,” but this isn’t it. On the other hand, the explanations of the name make perfect sense. It does tickle me that the trees in the background look like broccoli florets.

    The yucca resemblance is clear in the second photo. There’s a nice photo of the tree with its blossoms here: second one down. That page has some wonderful historical tidbits, as well as poetry, and a reminder that the leaves can wreak havoc with lawnmowers.


    March 18, 2015 at 8:38 AM

    • Good of you to point out the “broccoli florets,” which I hadn’t noticed. I expect the mention of cabbage primed your imagination’s pump, so to speak, to see another member of the family.

      Thanks for your link to the page about cabbage trees. I wish I’d gotten to see the plant’s flowers and fruit, but that’ll take a springtime visit.

      As for lawnmowers and cabbage tree leaves, I expect it would be similar to trying to mow the old leaves of its (rather distant) relative the agave.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 18, 2015 at 9:33 AM

  6. Aren’t cabbage trees wonderful? I’ve grown fonder of them with each visit, and have seen many that grow quite tall at crazy angles with sinuous trunks. The first time I saw them, I thought I had been transported into a Dr. Seuss book, because I was immediately reminded of Snide. Do you know his story of the pale green pants with nobody inside them? Review the page: “I had to do an errand, had to pick a peck of Snide / In a dark and gloomy Snide field that was nearly nine miles wide…” If you can find an image of that page, you’ll see what I mean. If you don’t have access to the book, here’s a link to the image I remember:



    March 23, 2015 at 10:17 PM

    • You may be the only person in the world to associate cabbage trees with pale green pants from Dr. Seuss, Gary, but so be it. Too bad you didn’t get the chance to speak to Theodor Seuss Geisel about it; maybe he could have incorporated a cabbage tree into one of his stories.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 24, 2015 at 7:17 AM

  7. I’m inclined to believe that he did just that, though I’d like to know when and how he learned about them.


    March 24, 2015 at 8:58 PM

  8. […] a relatively bright moment, even with some clouds drifting low, I recorded a view of cabbage trees and flax high above a span of sun-saturated […]

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