How to grow, prune and propagate cordyline

Flowers come and go, but foliage? It’s there year-round, adding oodles of appeal to your garden. For maximum foliage impact, look no further than the cordyline.

What you need to know about a cordyline

Name: cordyline, grass tree, cabbage palm (Cordyline cvrs.)

Plant type: evergreen, upright form, somewhat palm-like

Height: varies from 1m to 10m+ for different species forms

Foliage: long, strappy or broad, often colourful, leaves.

Climate: all except arid and semi-arid (varies with variety).

Soil: tolerates most soil types but does need good drainage.

Position: full to part sun, or dappled shade in warmer areas.

Flowering: Long sprays of tiny white or light pink, fragrant flowers may be seen in late spring to early summer..

Feeding: annually, with a controlled-release fertiliser.

Watering: once established, only required in very hot or dry conditions.

cordyline plant

Appearance and characteristics of a cordyline

Garden designers and home-owners alike have discovered the brilliance of foliage plants, and the cordyline has become a must-have. Equally stunning in the garden or in pots and planters, cordyline’s handsome strappy foliage comes in colours ranging from greens to reds, pinks, oranges and yellows. Look for varieties that don't form a trunk—they’ll stay in a neat clump, and slowly spread.

One of the biggest pluses of the cordyline is that it is very hardy once established, needing very little attention to keep it looking great.

There are two main groups of cordyline:

  • Tropical and sub-tropical cordylines. These are landscape flamingos with bold, flamboyant foliage in reds, pinks, yellows and oranges, easily recognised by their broad, lush, tropical-looking foliage. Tropical and sub-tropical cordylines are generally only suitable for warmer climates, as their parentage is mainly Cordyline fruticosa, a tropical species, but may be grown in warm micro-climates in warm temperate areas, and are often grown in cooler areas as indoor plants.

  • Warm and cool temperate cordylines. These are generally hybrids or varieties of Cordyline australis, the New Zealand cabbage palm, so are better suited to cooler conditions. They will survive in warmer regions but may struggle with heat, humidity and high rainfall. Their leaves are longer, around 1m, and thinner, up to 5cm wide.

Uses of cordylines

The cordyline can be planted in various ways to achieve striking effects:

  • Mass plant for foliage effect.

  • Excellent for adding tropical appeal.

  • Strongly architectural, brilliant in front of a plain wall or fence.

  • Excellent for pots and tubs.

How to plant and grow a cordyline

Tropical and sub-tropical cordylines will tolerate sun through shade, but can become leggy in too much shade. They like a rich, well-drained soil and reliable moisture, but can tolerate dry periods. They will need wind protection.

Warm and cool temperate cordylines prefer full-sun to part shade. They are adaptable to most soil types, but must have good drainage, and will be tolerant of dry conditions once established. Some forms can tolerate frost and temperatures down to –15˚C. The foliage will be damaged, but will reshoot come spring.

Planting cordylines

All cordyline varieties will benefit from soil improvement pre-planting. Blend through compost or composted manure, and feed with a controlled-release fertiliser.

Caring for cordyline

To keep your cordyline healthy, remove lower foliage as it starts to look tired. Start from the lowest leaves and work up, and they should pull off easily. Some varieties can become very leggy (all trunk with only a little foliage up top). These can be cut back severely. See ‘How to propagate a cordyline’ for more information. 

Pruning cordylines

Prune cordyline to remove the older leaves A cordyline will need heavy pruning to rejuvenate the plant.  See ‘How to propagate a cordyline’ for more information.

Diseases and pests

All varieties of cordyline can suffer from root rot if they remain too wet for too long. This can be avoided by ensuring drainage is good. Warm-climate varieties of cordyline may be attacked by grasshoppers, and cooler-climate varieties can be troubled by snails or slugs.

Propagation of cordylines

A cordyline, especially older varieties and the warm-climate forms, can end up looking like a Dr. Seuss tree—a tall skinny trunk with a fluffy head of colourful foliage up top. This is very easy to remedy, and can also get you lots of free plants!

Growing cordylines from cuttings

Follow these steps in spring to fix a cordyline that has become leggy:

  • Cut its top off, leaving 10–20cm of clear trunk below the last leaves.

  • Stick this head directly into the soil or into a pot.

  • Cut it near the ground, leaving a stump that’s at least 10cm tall. You’ll now be left with the middle piece of trunk. If this section is large, you can divide it up into lengths of around 15cm.

  • Stick the centre length of trunk into the soil or into a pot.

  • Keep the planted pieces moist, but not wet, until they reshoot.

Congratulations. You’ve just turned your one leggy cordyline into three or more plants!

If you like this then try

Ginger: add vibrant flower colour and brilliant foliage form to shady areas.

Ground cover plants: like a living mulch, groundcovers are awesome problem-solvers in sun or shade.

Kangaroo paw: perfect for foliage, form and colour in sunny spots.

Start planting today

Check out our huge range of plants now and get your garden growing!

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Grave health hazards are linked to asbestos, which may be in homes built up to 1990. Health hazards may result from exposure to lead-based paints in older materials and copper chromium arsenic (CCA) treated timber. For information on the dangers of asbestos, lead-based paint and CCA treated timber and tips for dealing with these materials contact your local council's Environmental Health Officer or visit our Health & Safety page. You can also use a simple test kit from Bunnings to indicate the presence of lead-based paint.
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