Cabbage tree leaves: help, not hindrance

Cordyline australis. Photo: Christine O'Connor
Cordyline australis. Photo: Christine O'Connor
The root of a cabbage tree is sweeter than sugarcane. Its flowers are fragrant and bountiful and attract a vast array of birds and insects.

Well, that's all very nice, but the leaves get caught in the blimmin' lawnmower.

Botanic gardeners spend hours raking and bundling up cabbage tree leaves: we can't deny they're a bit annoying.

But let's take a moment to appreciate our Cordyline australis, not despite their scruffy old leaves, but because of them.

The skirt of dead leaves is one of the cabbage tree's secrets to strength and survival, keeping the stem moist and protecting it from cold, drought and frost.

Wildlife love old cabbage tree leaves. The fibrous layers are useful to nest-building birds and insects who need a safe, dry hiding place. An example is the striped, pale brown cabbage tree moth. It rests with its wings stretched out and pressed flat so that the narrow markings on its wings are perfectly in line with the veins on the dead leaf. The moth's caterpillar larvae eat notches and holes in the live leaves, producing nutritious humus for a wide range of organisms that help to feed other insects that in turn produce more useful by-products for other life.

Lawn mower tangles aside, let's appreciate that cabbage tree leaves can be an asset to us, too. Bundle up a handful, fold them in half, tie them off with another leaf and store them in a dry place. Firestarters all winter.

Garden Life is produced by Dunedin Botanic Garden. For further information contact Kate Caldwell.