Cordyline fruticosa is one of those rare beings: a pretty face attached to a great personality. It's not the easiest plant to grow indoors, alas, but it's been -- and this is not quite the oxymoron it'll sound like -- the easiest difficult plant I've ever had.
Why "party planner?" Well, if you were throwing a houseplant party, Cordyline fruticosa is the only plant to hire. She'll bring the food, the drinks, the dancing, the patio umbrellas, the privacy fence so you don't disturb the neighbors, fun games for the kids, party favors for the guests to take home, and if she also happens to invite a couple people you'd rather not have around, well, what're you gonna do? Throw her out? You may as well just cancel the party.
So now I have to spend a few paragraphs unpacking that last one. Cordyline fruticosa, also called ti plant,1 is originally from Southeast Asia, south and east through some of Polynesia to Northeast Australia and a little bit west into the Indian Ocean. It is emphatically not native to Hawaii, though that's really where it's best known. She's also been introduced to New Zealand,2 and probably most anywhere else with a tropicalish climate. As best as I can tell, there's no serious invasive behavior, but I admit my search was less than exhaustive on that particular count.3
Cordyline fruticosa is pet- and child-safe. Not only is it not toxic, but it's edible: the rhizomes are starchy, and according to one site, they're sweet enough to be cooked and eaten as a dessert. The leaves have also been used as a food wrapper in Hawaii, basically the same way that corn husks are used in Mexico to make tamales. The resulting food is referred to as laulau4 regardless of what's in it,5 the same way that a burrito is still a burrito whether it contains eggs or meat or beans or potatoes or whatever.
The basic laulau recipe goes like this:
Take what you want for a filling, be this meat, vegetables, or whatever, plus salt to taste, and get about the amount you can hold in both hands, and put this in a taro leaf. One recipe I found said that the amount you can pack into both hands is about the right amount. Wrap the leaf around the filling, then get a second taro leaf and wrap that around from the opposite direction. Then take two ti leaves, cut the midrib out, split the petiole but leave it attached, and cross the leaves on a flat surface. (More explicit instructions, with photos, about preparing the ti leaves here.) Wrap the ti leaves around the bundle at right angles to one another and tie them all together using the split petioles.
Because this is all kind of a time-intensive process (I'm skipping past some steps, but you can read a more detailed recipe here if you're interested.), one usually does a whole bunch all at once, which means that one sees laulau mostly at big family occasions like weddings and graduations. (Parties, in other words.) I ran across more than one person bemoaning the fact that laulau has been relegated to a special-occasion kind of food. But however many you've got, when you're finished wrapping the packages, it's time to put them in a steamer. Different recipes say different cooking times, but the minimum appears to be three hours.6
So there's that.
Polynesians made an unnamed "beverage of low alcoholic content" from the roots; British sailors would later show up and teach them how to make a much stronger version, which was dubbed okolehao and which is about 80 proof. I'm really, really curious about what this would taste like. Maybe someday I'll get to try some. Even if it's really horrible, it'd be worth being able to say I did it, right? One page that referred to it said that although there are rumors of people still making okolehao, nobody you ask seems to have any firsthand experience with it, so it's possible that it's lost to history. (They speculate there that maybe it's so nasty you'd only drink it if you were a crazy haole7 sailor in the first place, and perhaps it's gone for good reason. Could be.)
Ti leaves are also the main component of your average hula skirt.8 Never mind that for some reason they get called "grass skirts" a lot: they're Cordyline fruticosa.9 Usually the midrib is removed, the leaf is split down the middle, and then the half-leaves are attached to a rope. Tie the rope around your waist, and you've got yourself a hula skirt.
Raincoats (or at least rain capes) were made from ti leaves as well, by a similar method -- instead of a rope, leaves were tied onto a net, but it's basically the same deal. The result looks to my eyes a lot like a parrot costume (look again at the primitiveways.com site), but I'll bet it did keep the rain off. The same principle was applied yet again for thatching roofs, though it seems to me like ti leaves wouldn't be broad enough to deflect the rain very effectively. (The 18th-century Hawaiians must have had to replace their small appliances weekly.) I suppose anything works if you get a thick enough pile going.
As for the privacy fence, well, they're not usually planted as fences exactly, but they are/were often used to mark property boundaries, which is supposedly where the terminalis in the old scientific name comes from, though I only found one source that gave that as the explanation. The alternate explanations aren't particularly satisfying either.10 Supposedly it's also good for repelling evil spirits if planted with Nandina domestica (heavenly bamboo) at the home's entrance: the ti goes to the right, the nandina to the left.11 Planting a ring of ti plants around your home is also supposed to protect your property from lava flows. My guess is that this probably works nearly 100% of the time -- in Florida.
As you'd expect from a plant that was this useful for, apparently, everything, it was a sacred object in its own right, and even though they were all over the place, from the sound of it, there were very specific restrictions on who could wear ti leaves, and on what occasions.
Games for the kids: mats of ti leaves are alegedly used for something called "lava sledding," which sounds . . . well, mostly just really dangerous. It's one thing to come to a sudden stop and fly over your sled into a snowbank; flying into a bunch of volcanic rock is something else entirely. Possibly the sledding is not done on actual lava, but on grass or something that's grown on lava. I was a little too scared to look into the matter too deeply. In any case, the leaves are sturdy enough and slick enough that I could see this working, given enough leaves and a steep enough hill. Call this one plausible but unconfirmed.
The party favors, though, are more definite: the ti plant was to the 70s what "lucky bamboo" (actually Dracaena sanderiana) is to the 00s.12 I'm pretty sure I never had one as a kid, but I think I remember seeing them, at least. The product was just a section of stem, which was supposed to be stuck horizontally in a shallow container of water, in a bright spot, until it grew roots and sprouted a growing tip. Maybe more than one growing tip. Then it was to be planted in soil and grown as a regular houseplant or patio tropical or whatever. These were called "ti logs" and are still available on-line if you look for them, though on-line stuff is always at least slightly risky, in that you can't gauge the quality before purchase. Still be worth checking into, though, if you live in an isolated or heavily rural area where you know your local stores are never going to get any Cordylines. It's apparently very easy to get them to sprout.
As for unwelcome guests, well, that's a bit of a drawback. These aren't extraordinarily buggy plants,13 but I've had to deal with spider mites more than once. The best way I've found to deal with spider mites at home is to, when watering, spray the leaves thoroughly with the detachable showerhead on the "massage" setting, and to do this over a period of a few weeks. It may sound silly, but it's effective.14
Not really an option at work, though.
So but let's get to care instructions, since we're kind of in the neighborhood:
LIGHT: I keep mine in the south window, with full sun. I've read that they can tolerate lower levels, but it's still not good to go much below bright indirect light. If light levels are too low, the plant will have weak, stretched-looking, drab-colored growth. If you move yours outside for the summer, as some people do, bear in mind that your plant will not be prepared for full outdoor sun, and needs to be eased into more sun slowly, or the leaves will burn.
WATER: This is hard to explain. You'll want a loose soil mix with good drainage, and the soil should never be completely waterlogged, and god forbid you should ever have the plant stand in its drainage water. At the same time, they don't want to dry out all the way either. If you're not sure whether to water, err on the dry side, but then after a couple days check again, and when you do water, be sure to get the soil saturated. Soil choice is kind of a big deal here. You want low-peat (peat holds water longer than you want), low-perlite (see FEEDING) soil which is high in composted bark and grit. The usual medium for ti plants being sold in stores is very peat-heavy, because peat is cheap, so it is usually going to be the case that when you buy a ti plant, you're going to want to give it new soil sooner rather than later. I won't promise you that this is going to solve all your ti plant problems, but it will help with some of them.
TEMPERATURE: Will survive freezes, but the exposed parts of the plant will usually die; new growth will sprout from the rhizome when temperatures warm back up. Supposedly hardy to USDA zone 8b, but I don't think I'd plant it there myself. The growers guide15 recommends 65 to 95 F (19-35C) for production, as well as shadecloth and a tall greenhouse to keep excessive heat from affecting plants (it dulls the foliage color). Presumably temperatures above 65/19 are ideal for growth, even if temperatures below that won't necessarily kill the plant outright. I have had plants survive low 40s F (around 5-6 C) outdoors, if they had been living outdoors for a while already.
HUMIDITY: Cordylines do prefer higher humidity than most people have in their homes, on the order of 40-60 percent. Lower humidity may or may not lead to any noticeable problems, but it will worsen existing ones (spider mites, drought stress, etc.). I've never had any issues in this respect with my own C. fruticosas.
PESTS: Well, spider mites, like I said. There are also a few bacterial and fungal diseases that I've never personally seen, which I don't believe to be a serious problem, and mealybugs, scale and thrips are all possible enough to warrant a mention, though they don't appear to be particularly serious problems by comparison to mites. Plants that spend the summer (or the year) outdoors are also supposed to be especially attractive to aphids.
PROPAGATION: The easiest thing about ti plants is how little work it is to make more. My personal preference is to cut the top off, leave it in water until it begins to root, and then plant it when the new roots are a few inches long. The original plant will, if kept in a bright, warm spot, go on to produce at least one new leader (so far, for me personally it's always been two or three). They're also supposed to be one of the few houseplants that can be propagated from root and rhizome cuttings, though I don't have any personal experience with those and didn't find any instructions about how to do that. And then, as mentioned above with the "ti logs," sections of stem will sprout in water too; I think you need about three or four inches' worth for that to work. I've tried planting canes on soil, at work, and those rotted without developing; water's probably the better strategy. Air layering is done very occasionally and is probably not necessary. Plants may also occasionally flower and produce small reddish berries; one assumes that these can be planted, but I didn't see any particular instructions about how to do that anywhere. Seedlings won't come true to the parent varieties anyway. The professionals mostly (says Lynn P. Griffith) use top cuttings, stuck directly into the final container. Bottom heat, humidity, and fungicide16 may help, if you're wanting to use the direct-stick method.
GROOMING: Minimal: it'd basically amount to cutting the plant back when it gets too tall and pulling off dead leaves when they go yellow. Nothing that's going to take a lot of your time. Use of leaf-shiner on Cordylines is strongly discouraged, not that any of us would do that: some varieties are sensitive to some brands, and unless you know for a fact that your cultivar/brand combination is good, it's probably best to skip it altogether. Besides which, they look weird with overly shiny leaves anyway. My plants have shown a tendency to drop a significant chunk of leaves when sprayed with neem oil for spider mites as well.
FEEDING: Feeding is kind of a big deal, because these are very sensitive about minerals in general, and fluoride-containing minerals specifically. The specific problems are: 1) if liquid fertilizers or other highly "salty" liquids get into the growing tip, the newest leaf will shrivel and die. This won't kill the growing tip, but it's worrisome if you don't know what's going on. 2) Excessive fluoride will give you severe tip burn on the leaves, plus the leaf margins will also go brown if it's bad enough. Heat makes this worse. As a lot of fertilizers contain fluoride,17 this means you either can't feed at all (which is bad) or you have to go to the extra work of tracking down a low-fluoride fertilizer.
I personally use a 14-14-14 Osmocote time-release, which has not caused any problems for me so far. (Lynn P. Griffith Jr. says that coated, slow-release fertilizers like Osmocote are usually not high in fluoride, though he neglects to explain why.) Keeping perlite out of the potting mix is also a good idea, as perlite (at least if it hasn't been washed) also tends to contain a lot of fluoride ion. Supplemental calcium may be needed at some point: Cordyline fruticosa requires more than most plants to begin with, plus calcium binds fluoride.
Too much fertilizer, or not enough fertilizer, can result in drab leaf color. Cordyline fruticosa has fairly normal needs for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, so if you have a low-fluoride fertilizer, you can use it more or less according to the label directions. Plants grown without sunlight need less, or none, depending on how dim their light is.
If your plant is showing signs of fluoride toxicity, you have some options. Whether you should, or can, use fluoridated tap water to water your Cordyline is a matter of some debate. Distilled or reverse-osmosis water is safer, though it also gets expensive, and I'm not positive that it's necessary. Rainwater is cheaper and probably better than anything else, but less reliably available, and of course depending on where you live and how you collect it, rainwater may not be all that pure either. But you could still try that.
I use fluoridated tap water myself, and I've never had burnt tips or margins on my own plants. Part of this might be because Iowa City water might just not have a lot of fluoride in it to begin with: with the exception of (farm-runoff-related) nitrates, Iowa City water tends to be fairly low in minerals. So maybe I'm just lucky. However, I also always take my plants to the shower and soak the hell out of them with the detachable showerhead when I water, and let a lot of water run through the soil, which most people don't do. This is definitely something I would recommend trying, if you're having problems with your plant: as mentioned above, it'll knock spider mites off, plus it will keep mineral buildup minimal. Since those are two of the biggest three problems with indoor ti plants (the third being humidity), that may fix the problem all by itself.
So that more or less covers care.
Two things may happen if your Cordyline is especially happy with you: one, it may outgrow the space you have for it, in which case the best response is to cut it back and start it over: it's not a tree exactly, but it can still reach twelve feet or so. And no, I don't know what it does when it gets to twelve feet. Two, it may flower. The flowers are not hugely decorative, at least not by comparison to the leaves, and not terribly long-lived either, but they're nice regardless. On a smaller plant, people would find them decorative, I suppose. All the flowers I've seen so far have been pink; supposedly they also come in red and yellow.
As best as I can determine, flowers are not self-fertile: we at least never had any of the work plants form fruits until several plants bloomed at once. The fruits are not particularly interesting to look at, and ripen slowly; I've read that they're eventually red, but I have yet to see red ones in person.
Cordyline fruticosa has . . . so many cultivars it's a little silly. The color palette involved, as you can guess from the photos in this post, covers dark red, hot pink, yellow, green, white, orange, near-black, brown, chartreuse, copper, white (or at least a really pale yellow), and most of the colors between any pair of colors from that list. 'Kiwi' has yellow-and-green-striped leaves with a thin hot-pink circumference; 'Tricolor' is sort of chartreusey with streaks of red at odd, random points; 'Bolero' is close to being impossible to describe;18 'Florica' is dark red and hot pink; 'Miss Andrea'19 has streaky leaves of white, brown, cream, and gray-green, and looks like a Cordyline pretending very hard to be Dracaena deremensis 'Warneckei.' I'm growing 'Kiwi' inside at the moment, as well as a small-leaved dark red cultivar which might be 'Baby Doll,' and am in my sixth month of negotiations with a 'Bolero' cutting which so far has really only been successful at getting spider mites. Varieties do differ in susceptibility to mites, fluoride, heat, etc., but I don't know enough about them all to be useful there. 'Baby Doll' is supposed to be especially touchy about fluoride.
This site (the International Cordyline Society, no less) has a completely ridiculous number of good-quality pictures of ti plants, of all kinds of different varieties, for your Cordyline porn needs. Having spent some time there for this post, I now covet all of them,20 but especially the ones whose pictures I've included in this post, 'Maize' and 'Strawberries on Fire' and etc. (This will pass, but at the moment, I am convinced that it would make my life complete if I could just get a specimen of 'Cameroon Yellow.' This kind of thinking is how I've wound up sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 483 plants.)
Leaves of Cordyline fruticosa are sometimes used in flower arrangements, which I think you'll agree makes sense: they're colorful, and relatively durable. One of my own plants (the maybe-'Baby Doll' one) came to me that way, kind of; the husband had bought a flower arrangement somewhere,21 which included a whole stalk of a ti plant just thrown in there for color, and after he'd had it for a while, I noticed that it was rooting. That was sometime in the summer of 2006. I potted it up, and not only do I still have that plant, I've propagated it a few times too.
So um. I expect that the long, picture- and footnote-heavy profile here pretty well gives away my enthusiasm for the species, and I know that there are people out there who would also like to grow them indoors but who have had problems in the past and eventually gave up. I hope those people have seen something in this post that helps them, who might be willing to try just one more time to make it work, if they run across a cheap one somewhere down the road. But I hope that even the people who have given up on growing Cordyline fruticosa have appreciated learning something about their history and connection to human culture. Plus the eye candy. Holy crap, there's some good eye candy. Check the ICS.
Photo credits: A good five or six hundred thank-yous to Kristy Clarke, at the International Cordyline Society, for giving me permission to use photos from the site and for confirming that the correct botanical name is fruticosa. Non-credited photos are my own.
1 Pronounced like "tea," not like "tie." I didn't find this out for certain until like four or five months ago: WCW was too polite to say anything. The name "ti plant" is probably a corruption/mishearing of the Hawaiian name, ki.
2 "Cordy, New Zealand. New Zealand, Cordy." "Oh! Nice to meet you." "Likewise."
3 It's too depressing. Everything seems to be invasive somewhere (mostly in Florida or Hawaii or both); I'd rather not find out that C. fruticosa is too. I did find that it's at least become naturalized in Hawaii and New Zealand, which may or may not be the same thing: this all would have happened long enough ago that I'm sure nobody remembers what native plants it caused the extinction of, if any.
4 Sometimes "lau lau" or "lau-lau." Means "many leaves."
5 Though pork is apparently traditional, chicken, beef, fish, sweet potato, onions, etc. are also used. My impression is that you can pretty much put anything in there and still call it a laulau. Maybe fruit would be crossing a line. I don't know.
6 One also has to make sure that the taro leaves are thoroughly cooked: taro leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals, like other plants in the Araceae. Cooking makes them safe to eat, but inadequately cooked taro leaves will cause itching and burning in the mouth. I'm curious about whether it's possible to use nothing but ti leaves, and skip the taro entirely: I suspect ti leaves are probably not wide enough, but maybe if one wrapped carefully? Banana (Musa spp.) leaves may be substituted for taro if need be.
7 (approximately equal to honky, gringo, etc. It's not a compliment. This was discussed at greater length in the Ardisia elliptica profile, q.v.)
8 Raffia (Raphia spp.) is also sometimes used, though it's less common, more expensive, and not quite authentic (Raphia spp. are not native to Polynesia: most species are from Africa and Madagascar; there's one from Central and South America as well). The main advantage seems to be that it lasts longer.
9 Which is classed in the Agavaceae, though Wikipedia says it's recently been taken out of the Agavaceae and placed in the Liliaceae. Whatever: it's not in the grass family (Poaceae). It's also not in the Asparagaceae, which is what I had on my spreadsheet until I started researching for this profile; I don't know where that came from.
10 (Aside: there are a stupidly large number of botanical names for this plant circulating. Cordyline terminalis seems to be the most prominent, but one also finds C. fruticosa, Dracaena terminalis, and Convallaria fruticosa. Cordyline fruticosa is the correct name at the moment, but this has not yet achieved broad circulation: everybody will at least know what you're talking about if you say Cordyline terminalis. Or you could just say "ti plant," too, which should also work.)
11 Though surprisingly, the source for this information doesn't specify which left and right: if you're standing outside the home looking in, you're going to plant things the opposite way from how you would if you're inside the home looking out. Logically, if the correct way repels evil spirits, the wrong way would trap them inside the house, or attract them to the house, or something like that, so it's really astounding that such a critical piece of information is being left out. I mean, if it's true, then it's important to get it right, no? Sadly, my best efforts yielded no clinical, double-blind studies on the attractive/repulsive forces exerted on evil spirits by ti/nandina combinations. Which is too bad. Plant at your own risk. Or forget the whole thing and plant a Murraya paniculata, which are apparently omnidirectional evil-spirit repulsors. Though the warranty's not as good, with Murraya.
12 We don't, as far as I'm aware, have an agreed-on name for the decade from 2000-2009, but I've seen one proposal for calling 2000-09 the "ones" and 2010-19 the "tens," and another suggestion designating 2000-09 the "tens" and 2010-19 the "teens." I'm hoping we can get this straightened out before 2010, since sidestepping the question with "the century so far" is only going to work for another year. . . .
13 Not really in the same league as Hedera helix or Codiaeum variegatum, but they're only the next step down, as spider mite intensity goes.
14 The "massage" setting on the showerhead also turns out to be a good way to break up peaty soil that's dried to the point of becoming water-repellent, though that can get messy. Use with caution.
15 Tropical Foliage Plants: A Grower's Guide, Lynn P. Griffith Jr., Ball Publishing, Batavia IL, 1998.
16 Or sterile rooting media like vermiculite. Perlite is also sterile, and is often used for this kind of thing, but for reasons to be described in the FEEDING section, I don't recommend perlite.
17 (This is particularly the case when the phosphorous in the fertilizer comes from "superphosphate," phosphate-containing rocks dissolved with sulfuric acid, because such preparations often come from rocks which naturally contain a fair bit of fluoride, and the fluoride doesn't get removed in the process.)
18 Fortunately I don't have to:
19 Play on the word "misandry," or innocent mistake honoring someone named Andrea? I hope it's wordplay. Either way,I'm certain it's a drag queen name several times over.
20 (Readers in Florida/California/Hawaii/Texas, take note)
21 For himself? Because somebody was coming over? I can't remember. We've gotten out of the habit of bringing home cut flowers, as the population of living plants has increased, but it used to be normal. Whether the Cordyline arrangement was romantic or not at the time, it's come to seem romantic since, because I still have part of it and there's that whole sentiment/nostalgia thing.