Ti Kouka or cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) is one of the most distinctive and beautiful trees in our landscape. The flowers produce a gorgeous scent in early summer and produce blue-white berries that birds love to eat. When it does flower, Maori say that it is a sign of a good summer. This tree is very special to me, we had many dotted across our property and my parents named our farm “Waitahanui” which means “stream where the cabbage tree grow”. Ti Kouka became the inspiration for most of the art that I have created.
Ti kouka is another native that Maori had a rich knowledge of and has a long history as a source of food, fibre and medicine. Ti kouka was particularly important as a source of food in the South Island, where it was cultivated in areas where other crops would not grow. The root, stem and crown were all eaten as they provided a good source of starch and sugar. Early settlers also used the young leaves from the centre of the top of the tree as a substitute for cabbage, hence the common name.
The tough weatherproof leaves were woven to create baskets, sandals and rain capes. The fibre was extremely useful as it did not shrink in water, therefore the leaves made ideal anchor ropes. Fishing nets made from harakeke were also strengthened using ti kouka leaves.
Ti Kouka were planted by Maori to mark trails, boundaries, urupa (cemeteries) and birth places, as the tree tends to live for a long period of time. The trunk is fire-resistant so early European settlers used it to make chimneys but the old leaves make excellent fire kindling (I can vouch for this, my parents frequently use bundles of ti kouka leaves to light their fire). Maori also used the leaves to make a tea to treat diarrhoea and leaves were also rubbed to soften them and applied to cuts, sores and cracks in the skin. Beer was brewed from the root of the tree by europeans settlers and was popular amongst whalers and sealers.
The ability of ti kouka to store water allows it to endure harsh environmental conditions and this resilience is why it is often the last native species to survive on cleared land. These days ti kouka are one of the most widely cultivated New Zealand natives not only in New Zealand but around the world.
Brooker et al. (1981) New Zealand Medicinal Plants. Auckland: Heinemann Publishers.
Cambie, R. C., & Ferguson, L. R. (2003). Potential functional foods in the traditional Maori diet. Mutation Research: Fundamental & Molecular Mechanisms Of Mutagenesis, 523/524:109
Macdonald, C. (1974) Medicines of the Maori. Auckland: William Collins (New Zealand) Ltd.