They have elegant, sword-shaped leaves that reach out from slender gray trunks. They fit into difficult spaces that require something tall, narrow and interesting. They are cordylines, richly colored perennials from New Zealand, and they are fine complements in California succulent gardens where foliage and textures, not flowers, are the focus.
Cordylines are sometimes called New Zealand cabbage trees or giant dracaenas. The latter is the better description of their appearance, which is reminiscent of the dracaenas that were once a houseplant mainstay.
Whereas dracaenas burn in direct sunlight, cordylines tolerate shade and direct sun. Whereas dracaenas are sensitive to cold, cordylines can handle temperatures down to 20 degrees, sometimes colder. And whereas dracaenas are mostly green, cordylines come in shades of green, bronze, olive, burgundy, raspberry and striped combinations edged in yellow or cream.
Most cordylines are slow growers. Varieties can reach 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Recent introductions include some "trunkless" cordylines such as Festival Grass, a deep, wine-colored variety that tops out at 3 feet tall and wide. These smaller cordylines are fabulous container plants. Then again, so are their taller counterparts. Plant a large burgundy cordyline such as Dark Star in an ocher or emerald green pot for a show-stopping piece of living architecture.