Phormium tenax

New Zealand Flax

In the garden collection that I am moving and redesigning there were three cultivars of large New Zealand flax, a medium sized variety and a miniature one:

‘Candy stripe’. Wide, flat leaves, 2 inches wide, with pink and moss green.
‘Bronze’. Wide leaves with reddish and brown tones.
Orange. It’s glowing! The roots were also bright orange sorbet hues.
Purple. About 2 1/2 feet tall, nice rich color. 1 inch wide leaves.
Dark green with dark purple edges, leaves are about 3/4 inch wide, and folded up the center. The new growth is wrinkled in a cute way. This one is only 18 inches tall and wide.

The subtle colors grow on me. Tough stalks are too hard to tear without a secateurs. Design-wise, these punctuate a planting scheme with their distinctive, structural form and tropical accent.

The photo on the right is of an arrangement I made with the small New Zealand flax. The purple edges and subltle stripes look good with the dark purple tulips, red alder twigs and furry moss.

I first heard of this plant from a S. Minneapolis Europhile client, who took his inside for the winter.

My garden helper, Miss Mud-Pixie, in her red hat and rain coat with a rain drop on her nose, called these grass today, because the tag calls them ornamental grass. I was at a loss- I knew they aren’t Poaceae, but what are they? Liliaceae like Agave would be my best guess. Agavaceae, the century plant family is where they are usually. Hemerocallidaceae, sometimes split out from Liliaceae is listed by some sources based on recent DNA research that reveals a close relationship to day lilies that was not surmised from morphological characteristics. Phormium is a genus of just 2 species, both native to New Zealand but naturalized elsewhere, such as Hawaii and western Ireland. They are perennial, and some grow to 9 feet tall, the flower stalks even taller. The flowers aren’t super showy though, and they are pollinated by birds with beaks that are curved, like the flowers. The Maori use the fibers of this plant to make cloth and rope. The name Phormium comes from the Greek word for basket.

Hardy in zones 7-11, grow New Zealand flax in full sun to part shade in moist, well-drained, sandy or light soil. Though in its natural habitat it grows near streams and on slopes, once established in the garden it needs little water. Divide in early spring or sow fresh seed. Pair with ornamental grasses or contrasting textures such as lamb’s ears or sedum. If you’re using it as an annual in a cold climate or in a planter, look for large-leaved coleus with bold colors, pennisetum, tradescantia, verbena or silver foliage such as licorice plant.

About Mulysa

I love my work as a landscape designer and artist. When I'm not planning homesteads or working in the studio, you'll find me hiking, photographing, gardening, baking, cooking vegetarian meals with friends, reading and working on sustainability issues...with my baby on my hip in Portland, Oregon.
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