The King of the Tropics: Cordyline Fruticosa, the Ti Plant
February 8, 2022
By Karen Maxwell, Horticultural Specialist
You know the plant … those mostly reddish foliage plants with skinny legs that are so often used in landscapes as a color break from predominantly green palettes. Botanically, Cordyline fruticosa or its synonym Cordyline terminalis, is also called the “King of Tropical Foliage” and for good reason. It just might be time to take a second look at our collection of cordylines and consider if they’re not worthy of a new focal point in your garden.
Commonly referred to as Ti Plants, let’s get right to that question of pronunciation. According to the world’s foremost authority on cordylines, the late B. Frank Brown, Ed.D. and seconded by the National Tropical Botanical Garden, headquartered in Hawaii and owner of The Kampong, former estate of Dr. David Fairchild, it is said just like a cup of tea. Ti = tea
Today, we’d like to show you that there is so much more to this collection of foliage plants, beyond the popular red varieties. Historical garden records indicate the Edisons grew a plant listed as a cordyline, and inventoried in the records as Dracaena indivisa, which according to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) of England is incorrect—it is Cordyline indivisa, a native of New Zealand where it is called Mountain Cabbage Tree and grows to the size of a small tree in good conditions. Container designers here in the States commonly refer to it as Spike and surprisingly, it is a frost-hardy cordyline. This cordyline easily hybridizes with Cordyline australis, a less hardy burgundy version of Spike, known as Red Sensation. In Europe, where Spike is frequently grown, the leaves are tied up in a bunch when there is a call for frost to protect the center bud.
Today, the landscape of the Edison estate is surely not the same as it was for Thomas and Mina, as the passage of time has brought destructive hurricanes, changes in growing conditions, and the natural attrition of trees and plants. We take great pride in preserving the Edison garden legacy by continuing to grow the plants they introduced wherever practicable, as well as by adding new collections and plants they most likely would have been keen to grow, whether for science or pleasure. Cordyline fruticosa which grow so well in South Florida is one of the newer additions with upwards of two dozen varieties now on site.
In 1994, Dr. Brown published the first (and only) encyclopedia of cordylines due to the absence of reference materials for this wide collection of tropical foliage plants, native to the Pacific rim countries of Southeast Asia, where he travelled extensively, collecting many specimens. In 1988, Dr. Brown opened Valkaria Tropical Gardens just outside of Melbourne, Florida and the nursery is still open today. Perusing through my many botanical garden guides and tropical plant books, Dr. Brown was on to something. For the most part, the cordyline is never featured, but is usually observed in photographs alongside other tropical plants almost as an incidental plant.
It’s time to move Ti plants from the back of the garden to the front so that we can enjoy their foliage and flowers. What sets cordylines apart from other interesting foliage plants? It is the wide range of colors, intensity of color and number of colors available on a single plant – one cordyline can have as many as seven different colors. Available as a dwarf, Fairchild Red* or as a magnificent 10-foot-tall Black Magic,* to the unique flattened leaf pattern seen in Singapore Twist,* cordylines are often confused with the closely related dracaenas. Ti Plants are also members of the Asparagus family and in their native Southeast Asia, the plants were grown for food benefits – the starchy rhizomes (roots) were cooked to make a beer. The leaves of the Ti plants historically were used to wrap food, make a roof thatch and before grass, Ti leaves made the original Hula skirts of Polynesians and Hawaiians. In fact, Hawaii is credited with hybridizing many varieties of Cordyline fruticosa and popularizing the plant.
Distinguishing a cordyline or Ti plant from a dracaena is quite easy. Notice in the photos, Ti leaves always have a stem, called a petiole, connecting them to the cane or branch of the plant, while dracaena leaves are connected directly to the main trunk of the plant.
Most cordylines top out at fifteen feet tall but will be smaller in our climate where the plants don’t get adequate year-round rainfall like in their native environments. During our drier, cooler months between November and April, you may need to supplement your garden with water to keep them happy, it is during this time that their colors will be most vibrant. There is some confusion as to how much sun the Cordyline terminalis needs to look its best. The lighter colors, such as lime green, Cordyline fruticosa Iris Bannochie* and other gold hued cordylines need to be protected from the hot afternoon sun or they will scorch and develop sun blisters. All cordylines growing in Southwest Florida need some degree of shade, but morning sun will develop the widest range of colors to be enjoyed. Keep in mind, when the plant gets more sun, they will also need more water.
With inadequate sun, only the margins will color up, leaving the rest of the leaves closer to green, and you will certainly observe more green on the lower leaves where the sun doesn’t reach. Red Sister,* probably the most common of the landscape cordylines has leaves that will nearly glow hot pink with adequate sun. Aunty Lou* and other red varieties, including the dwarf variety Fairchild Red* which only grows to about 18” tall and can be found in our Contra Garden as well as the Moonlight Garden, will maintain a deep, rich burgundy red color.
We’re all too familiar with old, straggly burgundy colored cordylines, but they don’t have to look like that. This easycare tropical plant can be pinched or cut aggressively to encourage a fuller growth. It is best to do this in the Spring or anytime between May and September; well past any chance for frost or cold temperatures to damage young shoots. By early Fall, one to four new shoots will emerge at the cut point. But wait! Don’t throw away that trimmed top! Simply trim it shorter if you like, and plant it in a pot of peat moss or in your garden, and it too will grow into a full plant. To create a full Ti effect, the cuttings can also simply be planted around the mother plant to enhance its appearance. Any 3-4” cut piece, when placed in a damp medium, will eventually set roots and sprout leaves; something Hawaiian souvenir shops often peddle. This propagation method is so easy, Hawaiian growers and Thailand hybridizers are at odds with each other because Hawaii doesn’t want to pay the premium involved in international shipping costs for the beautiful, hybridized foliage created by Thai growers.
In 2020, we created our Contra Garden which can be found in the former Edison Research Garden area. Highlighting the vision value of foliage and variegation, this garden has few flowers, though mature cordylines do produce sweetly scented pink flower spikes in the summer and it is here one can see many of our beautiful cordylines. As this plant does well in the afternoon shade, appreciates rich soil and good, regular watering, be on the lookout for it in unexpected corners of the gardens.
Cordyline leaves are very useful in floral arrangements, and anyone interested in creating one should add a number of cordylines to their garden because once you see how versatile they are, you’ll need plenty of extra plants to fill in the spaces where leaves have been cut and used. The larger, leathery leaves can be rolled around the inside of clear glass as a beautifully colored liner to disguise the stems of other flowers in a glass bouquet and they can be curled and tied like the cast iron plant leaf (aspidistra) as a filler in a more formal arrangement.
*Indicates plants in the Edison and Ford Winter Estates gardens.