How to grow cordyline
Forming a dramatic fountain of sword-like leaves when young, and growing into a tall exotic-looking palm, this is a versatile and striking plant. Use tender forms as houseplants or focal points in summer bedding, and give hardier cordylines pride of place in a warm sheltered spot.
- Easy to grow and drought tolerant
- Attractive evergreen foliage
- Creates a bold, tropical look
- Best planted in spring
- Grow outdoors in sun or light shade
- Grow indoors in bright light
- Usually need protection from frost
All you need to know
What are cordylines?
Also known as cabbage palms, cordylines are evergreen shrubs or palm-like trees from New Zealand. Young plants look like a low fountain of strappy foliage, then as they mature they form a strong stem and can reach 3–10m (10–30ft) tall, resembling an exotic palm.
With their bold, architectural appearance, cordylines make striking focal points. As well as green-leaved cultivars, there are some with dark red or purple foliage, or with yellow, pink or white stripes.
They suit many different planting styles, including tropical or Mediterranean borders, seaside and bedding displays, and contemporary urban gardens. They grow well in containers, so are ideal for small gardens too.
Most are not fully hardy in the UK, although Cordyline australis may survive the winter outdoors in mild areas. It's generally best to bring plants indoors over winter or provide them with winter protection.
How and what to buy
Cordylines are widely available all year round in garden centres, tropical nurseries and online suppliers, including RHS Plants.
They come in a range of sizes, from small plants for summer bedding displays to large stand-alone specimens. The smaller, tender species may also be sold as houseplants.
Cordylines are easy to plant and should settle in quickly. Just be sure to water regularly until well established.
Where to plant
Cordylines can be grown in borders and containers. They like a warm sheltered position, with fertile well-drained soil. Read our guide on how to assess your garden conditions.
Full sun is ideal for green-leaved cordylines, but light shade is preferable for those with colourful or variegated leaves, as strong sun can fade their rich hues.
Tender species, such as Cordyline marginata, C. stricta and C. fruticosa (syn. C. terminalis), are best grown in containers, so they can easily be moved indoors over winter.
When to plant
Cordylines are best planted in spring, after the last frost. This gives them time to get established before winter, increasing their chances of survival.
How to plant
Cordylines are easy to plant in borders and containers.
- When planting in borders, follow our step-by step guide to planting shrubs.
- When planting in a container, as a houseplant or in summer container displays, use multipurpose or loam-based compost such as John Innes No 2. See our container planting guide.
- When planting in a long-term container, choose John Innes No 3 compost, with added grit to improve drainage. For more details, read our container planting guide.
Cordylines are generally low maintenance, needing little watering once established. When grown in containers, however, they require regular watering and feeding, and winter protection, except in mild areas. So be prepared to either bring them indoors or move them to a sheltered spot and wrap them with fleece.
When growing in borders, newly planted cordylines should be watered regularly during their first summer. Established plants are drought tolerant and shouldn’t require watering.
Cordylines in containers need regular watering during the growing season, but should be kept fairly dry in winter. Plants that are indoors over winter need only occasional watering, but those left outside should be moved to a sheltered spot to protect them from excessive winter rain. Long spells of cold, damp weather can kill them.
Tips on recycling and collecting water
How to water efficiently
- Cordylines growing in the ground shouldn’t need feeding.
- Those in containers can be given a balanced, liquid fertiliser from spring to late summer.
- If growing a cordyline permanently in a container, top-dress in spring – remove 5cm (2in) of old compost from the surface and replace with a fresh layer.
How to look after plants in containers
How to use fertilisers
- With cordylines in borders, lay a thick layer of mulch over the root zone in autumn, to help insulate the roots. See our guide to mulching tender plants in winter.
- With cordylines in containers or coastal-style plantings, a mulch of gravel will give an attractive finish and also help to enhance the seaside feel.
Well-established cordylines may flower in hot summers, producing frothy spikes of tiny white blooms. The faded flower spikes can be removed or left to produce small red or purple berry-like fruits.
There are several species of cordyline – most are tender or not fully hardy, so should be kept frost-free or protected over winter.
Cordyline australis is the hardiest species and should survive outdoors in mild parts of the UK, especially if grown in a sheltered spot. However, even with this species, young plants and cultivars with coloured foliage are susceptible to winter damage. In colder parts of the UK, give all species winter protection or bring indoors.
To protect cordylines growing in the ground:
- Tie the foliage together in a bunch – this will reduce wind damage and prevent water collecting in the growing points and causing rot.
- In cold locations, also wrap the main stem with layers of fleece and place a 15cm (6in) layer of mulch, such as bark, over the root area. See our guide to wrapping tender plants.
To protect plants growing in containers:
- Move them to a frost-free location, such as a greenhouse, porch or conservatory. You can also give them temporary shelter in a shed or garage during cold snaps.
- Alternatively, wrap bubble polythene around the container, stand it against a sheltered wall, and protect the foliage and stems with fleece.
How to use less plastic
For plastic-free insulation, use straw and hessian, or a glass cloche, instead of bubblewrap and fleece.
Tender species, such as Cordyline marginata, C. stricta and C. fruticosa (syn. C. terminalis), should be brought indoors or into a heated greenhouse over winter. Check plant labels carefully before buying, to find out if the plant is tender.
Caring for older plants
Cordylines can be long-lived plants and can easily grow to several metres tall. If yours has become too tall, you can cut it back in spring (see pruning, below).
Cordylines generally need little if any pruning, but can be quickly tidied up to keep them looking good, or cut back if they grow too large or get damaged by winter frost or gales:
Cordylines naturally and gradually lose their older leaves, which can be removed to improve the plant’s appearance.
In warm summers, established cordylines may flower and fruit. This causes no harm and the spikes of tiny white flowers can either be removed or retained, or can be cut out later when they are no longer attractive. If left, they will form small red or purple berry-like fruits.
If your cordyline grows too large, you can prune it in mid-spring by sawing through the main stem, and it should quickly produce new sprouts. Make the cut just above a sideshoot or basal shoot, or down at ground level. Take care if cutting down a large specimen with a thick trunk – it may be best to get a specialist contractor to do this. See our guide to hiring gardeners and contractors.
After pruning, apply a balanced fertiliser in spring to encourage new growth.
To create a multi-stemmed plant, remove the growing point before growth begins in spring.
Take terminal (shoot tip) cuttings that are 10–15cm (4–6in) long. Remove all the leaves apart from the terminal tuft.
Take stem-section cuttings from thicker stems. Cuttings should be 5–7.5cm (1–2in) long and include a bud. Insert horizontally in the compost with the growth bud just visible at the surface.
Sever rooted suckers from the base in spring and pot up individually. If they have only a few roots, treat as terminal cuttings (see above).
In warm summers, plants may produce fruits containing viable seeds. Sow the seeds in spring at 16°C (61°F).
Few pests and diseases affect cordylines, but winter cold and damp can be problematic.
Look out for:
- Spots on leaves – these are due to physical damage or stress, such as cold wind, hail and winter wet.
- Poor growth, yellowing and browning of the foliage or excess leaf drop – these may be caused by cold, wet weather in winter, or drought and heat stress in summer. Improve the growing conditions and provide winter protection.
- Dieback of the crown – can be a result of winter damage. Prune out the affected area, and the plant should quickly re-sprout, either from the bare stem or the base. In future, provide winter protection.
- Frost damage to the bark following a hard winter – this can make plants susceptible to an infection known as cordyline slime flux.
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