Phormium – The New Zealand Flax
Phormium Tenax is the New Zealand Flax. With so many varieties and cultivars such as the dark foliage Phormium ‘Platt’s Black’, the copper colored dwarf variety Phormium ‘Bronze Baby’ the magnificent two toned lime green and yellow Phormium ‘Yellow Wave Flax’ and the red tones of Phormium ‘Jester’ the New Zealand Flax is a versatile landscaping plant. Tough, easy to grow and relatively drought tolerant.
New Zealand Flax
Those of you who have heard me at Cottage Garden Club meetings may have noticed that I’m fairly fond of New Zealand Flax. They didn’t make it into my last talk on a ‘Top Ten’ of late Summer Perennials purely because at this time of year they can be comfortably eclipsed by a plethora of flowery things eager to take our eye.
It is at those other times of the year, the more ‘in between’ times, that evergreen foliage plants like the Flax shine, holding the garden landscape together as other seasonal plants come and go. (Perhaps they didn’t qualify under Edible Ornamentals either, but I have seen them used to bunch market garden produce, stripped down to fine tough green string and of course they make an excellent craft material too).
Most of us however will be content with growing them merely for their eye appeal and hardiness. Their outlines can provide quite dramatic verticals, suiting strong colored modern schemes and Mediterranean themes, but also softer forms for more flowery effects or evergreen plantings relying on foliage contrasts, depending on whether they are erect or arching in habit. Their colours vary likewise from starkly contrasting stripes to soft olive, brown, plum or bronze monotones.
Though we have long regarded them as ultra-tough stalwarts for difficult sites (dry, salt laden, hot, cold, windy etc), I was interested to see in Sydney last spring after such a hard and protracted drought that even the faithful Phormiums had been doing it tough in un watered sites, many having lost a lot of foliage and in some cases even losing the struggle – there are limits, even for such hardy critters, especially on sand.
One thing I do try to stress to gardeners buying my Flaxes is that you shouldn’t expect them to become immediately drought hardy from the moment you plant them. If you inspect their yellow roots you will see that they are relatively few and rather string like. Naturally their length will be limited by the pot they are in, and their water gathering ability likewise. Head these roots out and down when planting and keep them regularly watered. Do it thoroughly, but allow them to dry somewhat between watering so that those stringy roots learn to go nice and deep.
Another thing to keep in mind is that they don’t like to flap in the wind – keep the bulb where the leaves join at the base, but not the leaf blades, firmly anchored in the soil. (If they wobble they will break roots and pine away).
As a general rule, the tougher the substance of the leaves the more direct sun will be tolerated – the big P. tenax cultivars obviously taking the most. Dark coloured leaves absorb more of the sun’s rays, and though pigmentation is usually thought to protect foliage from damage I do find that the dark leaved cultivars need more shade, or perhaps rather than overhead shade, fewer actual hours of sunlight. They don’t really like overhead drips, but prefer an ‘edge’ situation, say facing east or west. The magnificent ‘Platt’s Black’ with its soft textured almost black leaves seems to need the most shade of all.
Phormium tenax varieties
Some newer ones listed include:
- Phormium tenax ‘Purpurea’ is lovely bronze / purple colored flax
- Phormium tenax ‘Jester’ has deep pink to deep orage foliage with a green margin
- Black Rage has a deep chocalate grey/ black foliage, an exceelent foil for other colors
- Pink Panther has the nicest pink weeping foliage we have seen
- Guardsman has red and black stiped foliage, a striking form
- Phormium tenax ‘Sweet Mist’ is a smaller growing plant with lovely bronze foliage, reaching only 30 – 40 cm it is an excellent choice for a low border.
- Yellow Wave has a yellow to light lime centre with darker green edges
- Rainbow Sunrise has reddish pink foliage with a deep red stripe
- ‘Brownie’ – A semi-dwarf with slim semi-erect leaves in a golden olive-brown.
- ‘Ice Queen’ – A reverse sport from the extra-reliable ‘Apricot Queen’ that occurred in the nursery several years ago. In this one the leaf is mid-green with a pale lemon-gold edge stripe and fine red edge. The shape is erect and the leaf blades slightly flared rather than stiff, reaching about 90cm in height. Very stylish.
- tenax ‘Dark Horse’ – A medium large one with bloomy deep bronze-plum leaves that are more or less erect but with arching leaf tips . The mystery of the ‘dark horse’ was its final size, which seems to average out to something under 1.4m. A very nice colour and does well in sun or shade.
- ‘Needles’ – This one came to me from John Feruglio, “The Flaxman”, in Victoria and has myriad softish slim jade green leaves that remain erect more due to force of numbers than anything else. A great foliage subject that would make an excellent ‘anchor plant’ in a rockery bed.
Some favorites varieties are:
- ‘Chieftain’ – A seedling son of ‘Maiden’ but much more robust and erect in form with wider leaves and, interestingly enough, the opposite leaf stripe pattern, bloomy grey-green with a striking wide bright pink edge stripe.
- ‘Anna Red’ – One of the tallest, a large bold and erect plant in deep, almost metallic, red – a striking piece of living architecture.
- tenax ‘Tricolor’ – This one has been around for quite a long time and isn’t often offered for sale as it produces few but large fans of leaves, each one striped irregularly in sage-green cream and pink. Beg one from a friend if you can!
- ‘Elfin’ – A small one with stiff fine mahogany-bronze leaves, beginning erect but with the tips twisted over at elegant angles.
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