CABBAGE TREE, TI
The cabbage tree is a familiar sight in swamps or dampish places throughout New Zealand vegetation. It is also planted occasionally in gardens and parks and has been introduced into horticulture overseas. It reaches heights of 40 ft at its maximum development with diameters of 1–4 ft. The crown is made up of long, bare branches carrying bushy heads of large, grasslike leaves 2–3 ft long. Early settlers used the young leaves from the centre of these heads as a substitute for cabbage – hence the common name. At flowering time large panicles of small, white, sweet-scented flowers emerge from the centre of the heads. Good flowering seasons occur every few years only. It is said that they foretell dry summers but, from observation, they usually follow dry seasons. Small, whitish berries are formed which are readily eaten by birds. The tree is very tenacious of life, and chips of the wood or sections of the stem will readily shoot. The leaves contain a high percentage of long fibres which are occasionally extracted.
The genus Cordyline is placed by many botanists in the lily family, a group of plants which contains few trees, C. australis being the largest. The genus contains over twenty species most of which occur in the warm temperate and tropical regions of the southern hemisphere. Apart from the cabbage tree, there are four other species in New Zealand and the surrounding islands. The commonest are C. banksii which has a slender, sweeping trunk, and C. indivisa, a most handsome plant, with a trunk up to 25 ft high bearing a massive head of broad leaves 2–6 ft long.
The Maoris obtained a most nutritious food, kauru, from the root of the young cabbage tree. This root is an extension of the trunk below the surface of the ground and is shaped like an enormous carrot some 2–3 ft long. An observer of the early 1840s, Edward Shortland, noted that the Maoris “prefer those grown in deep rich soil; they have learned to dig it at the season when it contains the greatest quantity of saccharine matter; that is, just before the flowering of the plant. They then bake, or rather steam it in their ovens. On cooling, the sugar is partially crystallised, and is found mixed with other matter between the fibres of the root, which are easily separated by tearing them asunder, and are then dipped in water and chewed”.
by Alec Lindsay Poole, M.SC., B.FOR.SC., F.R.S.N.Z., Director-General of Forests, Wellington.