Brown-bitting our cordylines

“Brown-bitting” isn’t in your gardening vocabulary? Don’t feel bad, it wasn’t in mine either until I read the book Architectural Plants by Christine Shaw. It literally just means removing all the brown bits of a plant—dead or dying leaves, spent flowers and so forth. It’s something I do regularly, but now I have a handy word to describe it.

Almost exactly two years ago we redid the far corner of our back yard, next our the Washington navel orange tree. This area is tricky because in the summer it only gets a few hours of sunshine in the morning, and maybe another hour (if that much) in the afternoon. In the winter the sun is too low to hit this area at all. We decided to plant mostly foliage plants, including several cultivars of lilyturf (Liriope muscari), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) as well as two variegated flowering maples (Abutilon pictum 'Thompsonii' and Abutilon x ‘Savitzii’). In the right-hand corner (not visible in the photos below) is a blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus ‘Teague’s Blue’).

Freshly planted cordylines, January of 2009

The focal point in this area are two cordylines (Cordyline australis). I chose the regular all-green kind because the more colorful purple varieties tend to get lost visually unless they’re placed against a lighter background. Cordylines are a common sight in their native Australia and New Zealand and have become quite popular in California in the last 10 years. I’m very fond of their long strappy leaves and vertical growth habit. As the older leaves die and shrivel up (or get cut off, as the case may be) the plant forms a thin trunk, with the growth concentrated in the pompom of leaves above. This gives the plant a palm-like look.

January 2011

Our two cordylines were planted in January of 2009 from 1-gallon containers and have grown quite a bit since then. Even though the bottom leaves were still largely green, I decided to trim them to make the trunks more visible and give the plants more definition.

Before black-bitting
After black-bitting

Cordyline australis has several common names, including cabbage tree and and cabbage palm. I have never actually heard anybody call them that, and I have no idea where the cabbage reference comes from—no cabbage I’ve ever seen has leaves like that! I believe in the U.K. cordylines are called Torbay palms, probably because they thrive in Torbay and other spots along the Southwestern coast of England.

January 2011

Cordyline australis is said to be hardy to 15°F, even lower with some protection. It grows well in containers and provides an exotic vertical accent when placed up against the house. It isn’t fussy when it comes to soil (except poorly drained clay) and it can make do with relatively little water. While the literature says that it needs full sun, our two cordylines only get sporadic sunshine and are doing just fine.


  1. Another plant I can only grow as an annual. =) How fast do these grow? The literature indicates they are trees and can reach 20m tall. I'm assuming you don't plan on letting them get that tall?

    Also, is it "brown-bitting" or "black-bitting", or does it just change depending on the color of the bits you're removing? ;-)
    It's not work, it's gardening!

  2. Looking nice! I like the look of the Cordylines. How did the oranges survive the deep freeze?

  3. Alan, yes, cordylines grow up to be trees--at least down under. They don't seem to grow super fast here. Ours are currently 5 ft tall x 4 1/2 ft wide so they've grown maybe 1 1/2 ft a year.

  4. Becky, the oranges are OK. We've been making orange juice :-).

  5. After our recent cold snap in the uk (-10C locally) many cordylines near us have been badly damaged. A few seem to have survived though, fortunately they will often regrown from the ground as long as they were well established and the cold isnt too severe.

    You are correct that they are sometimes known as Torbay Palms over here and also Devon or Cornish Palms too.

  6. Mark and Gaz, that's terrible to hear. Your winter certainly has been a doozy. Do you have any cordylines yourselves?

    Torbay, Devon or Cornish palms? How funny that so many areas in the southern U.K. claim them as their own!


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