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.Cordyline fruticosa 'Florica.'
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.3The plain green, wild-type Cordyline fruticosa.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.Cordyline fruticosa 'New Guinea Fan' (photo: Trevor Crawford at the International Cordyline Society website; used by permission of the ICS)
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.Inflorescence. This picture makes it look more purple than pink; a couple pictures down is a truer-color close-up of the same plant.
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
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.Cordyline fruticosa 'Kiwi.'
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.Cordyline fruticosa 'Vanuatu' (photo: International Cordyline Society; used by permission)
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.Very close close-up of the flowers. Open in new window if you want to see it really enlarged.
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 Cordyline
s. It's apparently very easy to get them to sprout.Cordyline fruticosa 'Strawberries on Fire' (photo: Kristy Clarke at the International Cordyline Society website; used by permission of the ICS)
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.'Florica' again.
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. Resprouting from a cut-back cane. I don't know why this isn't done more often on purpose: it leads to fuller-looking plants (eventually).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.Cordyline fruticosa 'Maize' (photo: Sharon Russell at the International Cordyline Society website; used by permission of the ICS)HUMIDITY
s 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. fruticosa
: 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.This plant had been water-rooting for a few weeks. You don't need quite this much root development before planting, and in fact it's probably preferable to have a bit less.Another resprout picture. This is the parent plant of the cutting in the previous picture.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.One of the berries from a work plant.
: 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 Cordyline
s 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. Cordyline fruticosa 'Orange Tip' (photo: Santuro Park at the International Cordyline Society website; used by permission of the ICS)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.This is all from a single cutting (see footnote 21). The color's a little off: I suspect bad lighting and inadequate feeding. It got better. The taller plant in this picture is the same as the one in the "supply your own caption" post from a few days ago, just many months later.
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. 'Tricolor' (or maybe 'Bicolor')
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.Cordyline fruticosa 'CTC Harlequin' (photo: International Cordyline Society; used by permission)
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.'Kiwi' flowers, from forever ago.
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.) Cordyline fruticosa 'Cameroon Yellow' (photo: Santuro Park at the International Cordyline Society website; used by permission of the ICS)
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
.Cordyline fruticosa 'Arron's Red' (photo: International Cordyline Society; used by permission)
-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.