In spite of its name, a cabbage tree is not a tree which grows cabbages sold at the local supermarket. This is actually a common name for a variety of different trees. One of the most widely recognized is Cordyline australis, a palm-like tree native to New Zealand. The Andira inermis is another species known by this name which grows in Mexico, Central America and South America, while the black cabbage tree, Melanodendron integrifolium, is endemic, or found exclusively on the south Atlantic island of St. Helena.
The New Zealand cabbage tree may look like a palm, but it is not a member of the palm family. The tree can reach a height of 39 feet (12 m) to 65 feet (20m) with a bare trunk and branches near the top. The leaves are long and blade-like, appearing in clusters on the branches. In the spring the tree will blossom with fragrant white, red or yellow flowers.
The Maoris, a native people group from New Zealand, used the tree for fibers and medicine and wove its branches into baskets, rope and sandals. Early European settlers made beer from the roots and ate the inner leaves and stalks raw or cooked as a vegetable. They are the ones who began calling the drought-resistant tree a cabbage plant. The trunk was so fire-resistant that the settlers used its wood to build their chimneys. This cabbage tree has been successfully transplanted in the USA, Europe and Great Britain, where it is referred to as the Torquay Palm.
The cabbage tree found in tropical zones of Central and South America and West Africa can also reach 65 feet (20m) in height. This evergreen has pink and purple flowers in the spring and produces a small fruit with a single large seed. The gray bark has been used in herbal medicines for generations as a cure for intestinal worms, ringworm and other fungal skin infections, but the plant must be used with great care. This tree is actually considered a poison and too large a dose can cause vomiting, fever and even death. Castor oil and lime juice have been used as antidotes.
The black cabbage tree is only found on the island of St. Helena located in the south Atlantic about half-way between South America and Alaska. This tree is smaller than the others, only reaching an average height of 13 feet (4m) and has thick, dark leaves which grow in clusters resembling a head of cabbage near the end of the branches. They can be found in moist regions on the mountain slopes. The bark, which is always damp, tends to be covered with mosses, lichens and ferns.
The black cabbage is also a flowering tree and produces flowers formed by a cluster of small yellow disc florets surrounded by white petal-like florets. The black cabbage tree is protected under an endangered species regulation due to its limited growing range and the threat of encroachment by non-indigenous species transplanted on St. Helena. An active replanting program has been initiated in two national parks on the island to protect this species.