How to prune a Cordyline australis

Here’s my guide to pruning / pollarding a Cordyline australis: chop it down to whatever height you want and it will grow back. Easy.

That’s it. But I guess I should expand a little bit given there is so little information on the subject.

Why pollard a Cordyline australis?

It’s a good question, why even pollard a Cordyline australis in the first place? Well, I agree, there is no point, the bigger they get the more beautiful they are… usually. I’ve always loved our Cordyline, it seemed to retain its lower leaves in the green better than others I see around. The above picture shows our Cordyline on 29th January 2019, five years after I moved it to this spot and the fateful day I decided to bite the bullet and lop it down.

There were three problems with our Cordyline due to the fact our patio is West facing. Firstly, it is leaning more and more toward the sun to the south, this lean was pulling the roots out of the ground. It’s true I could have erected an elaborate stake and rope scenario to yank it back in place but the second problem is that this position on the south corner of our main border meant it was casting large amounts of shade along the rest of the border. That shade has been causing havoc with all other plants as they stretched for light – made worse by the fact the Cordyline had begun to branch making it wider. The third problem is that these are moisture loving plants, so a large, multi headed tree in full sun would drain this part of the border of more moisture than I would like.

I suppose you could argue that pruning could be useful to encourage the plant to branch sooner and lower but as they grow they naturally branch anyway.

When to prune a Cordyline australis?

The best time is not when I cut it, we live in a microclimate. Wait until spring, around May. This is because Cordylines are slightly tender and the leaves offer the plant some protection from frosts, so it’s best to wait until they’re out of the way. Also because the plant is only in active growth from spring onwards, so cut it in winter (as I did) and you’ll be looking at a log for a few months.

Where to prune a Cordyline australis?

You can chop the Cordyline back to any point you wish and new shoots will form just below the cut. I angled it slightly to let water run off and used a saw, it is incredibly easy to cut through. You could cut right down at the base and it will reshoot, almost always with multiple growing points. As it grows the new stems will morph the old trunk to reduce the unsightliness of the cut.

How does it grow back?

Our Cordyline started showing signs of new growing points in April, these start as green bumps bursting through the barky trunk. Gradually they form points as you can see above. These new shoots are particularly delicious to snails and slugs which kept eating them so I added the copper tape to prevent this from happening. I needn’t really have worried because as the weather warms up the plant goes into overdrive forming new growing points.

Any after care?

Yes, you will need to give it some fertiliser in the form of a compost mulch or liquid seaweed when it’s growing as it has suffered a major loss. Although once the leaves start appearing, it will be back in business, usually with a lot of new shoots.

So vigorous is our tree I’ve counted at least 20 new shoots up and down its stem. Begging the question, which to keep and which to nip off? If I leave them all to grow it will turn into a many headed Hydra creating even more shade than before. All I really want is one new shoot.

The shoots at the base and mid-trunk are easy, I don’t want these so I’ll keep nipping them off. They do keep coming back like whack-a-mole but I’m guessing this will slow once we have a dominant leader shoot again.

At the moment I can’t decide which of the top shoots to keep, whether to have the new leaves growing to the back, front or side. Not that it really matters as they will cover the stump, it’s more for how this slight bias to one side or other will create shade around it. But either way, it’s now two meters lower and for a few years, back below the fence line.

Despite the impression all of this hacking and chopping may give I am doing this because I love the plant. It’s the first plant in our garden, planted by our previous neighbours and friends Jenny, Peter and Cath. It’s such an architectural rock that our garden has felt bereft without it. With shoots growing rapidly by the day however, its presence will soon be back and our garden all the better for it.

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Jack Wallington

I'm an RHS qualified garden designer living in Clapham, London who loves growing plants and designing with them. Follow me on Twitter.

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