With their arching, strappy, sword-shaped leaves, Phormiums make a dramatic statement in the garden. They are versatile evergreen plants that tolerate a range of conditions and look at home in a variety of different planting schemes.
Phormium or New Zealand Flax, has two characteristics which are sought-after by gardeners looking to add a bit of drama to their borders. It offers bold, architectural lines with its erect, sword-shaped leaves and rich evergreen foliage colour.
Phormium tenax is the largest of the Phormiums with evergreen, dark green leaves with blue-green undersides. They will grow in most soils, in full sun or partial shade. As an evergreen it will and valuable winter interest to your garden where it will provide structure and act as a foil for flowering plants. In hot summers, towering spikes of tubular, red flowers emerge from the centre, followed by sturdy seed-heads. It gives a lush almost tropical feel to gardens.
P. tenax is a robust species that is easy to grow and requires very little maintenance. Extremely tolerant of a variety of harsh conditions, it copes particularly well with industrial pollution, wind and coastal sites. Interestingly, while phormiums love a moist, well drained, fertile soil and they can succeed in both sandy and clay soils and also can be very drought-resistant.
Phormium tenax has been awarded the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM).
Sowing: Spring (Feb to April) or in Autumn (Sept to Oct)
Sow at maximum 16 to 18°C (60 to 65°F), covering them with a thin layer of peaty compost. Kept moist but not wet at all times. Germination can be erratic, between 30 to 180 days.
Prick out each seedling as it becomes large enough to handle, transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots or trays. Grow on in the greenhouse for at least their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15days before planting out. You may find them rather lax as youngsters but they develop a strong upright habit rather quickly.
Once established, Phormium require only the minimum of care and are hardy to minus 5°C (23°F), but in frost prone areas, it is worth covering plants with a deep mulch of well-rotted compost or straw in winter.
Healthy plants soon grow into a large clump as new fans of leaves develop around the older ones. These eventually develop their own roots and can be detached from the parent plant. It is probably best to cut back some of the leaves of the young plant to reduce the water demand while it is getting established. Even if all the roots get broken off, most pieces will root again if kept moist.
Plants can be divided in spring. Dig up the whole plant then divide it into several pieces using a spade or knife.
Plants growing in pots can be un-potted, freed of most of the soil and small sections broken off. The roots can be carefully teased apart leaving as many as possible attached to each offset. The pieces can then be planted separately.
Architectural, Tropical, Containers, Cultivated Beds.
Phormium tenax occurs naturally in New Zealand and Norfolk Island, while Phormium cookianum is endemic to New Zealand. Phormium was one of the first plants to be discovered when Captain Cook landed in 1773.
Phormium is an herbaceous perennial monocot. Monocot classification has undergone significant revision in the past decade, and recent classification systems have found Phormium to be closely related to daylilies (Hemerocallis), placing it in family Xanthorrhoeaceae, subfamily Hemerocallidoideae. Phormium formerly belonged to the family Agavaceae and many classification systems still place it there.
The naturalist Jacques Labillardière collected indigenous flax plants when French ships visited the far north of the North Island of New Zealand in 1793. He noted the many uses the Māori had put the plant to and in 1803 gave it the scientific name Phormium, from the Greek meaning "basket" or "wickerwork", and tenax meaning "tenacity" meaning ‘persistent’ or ‘obstinate’. It is known to the Māori as ‘harakeke’.
They are quite distinct from the Northern Hemisphere plant known as flax (Linum usitatissimum), but the genus was given the common name 'flax' by Anglophone Europeans as it too could be used for its fibres.
On arrival about 700 years ago Polynesians found the fibre of the native flax superior to anything they had known. Living without metal, or land mammals for hides or clothing, they placed a high value on flax.
Plaiting and weaving (raranga) the flax fibres into baskets were but only two of the great variety of uses made of flax by Māori who recognised nearly 60 varieties, and who carefully propagated their own flax nurseries and plantations throughout the land.
Different varieties had different uses. The tough fibrous leaves were used for making baskets, mats, fishing nets and lines, rope, sails, shelter and clothing. A fine weave known as kete whakairo is highly regarded because of the skill and knowledge of the craftsperson.
Māori draw the abundant nectar from the flowers as a general sweetener. They also use the pollen as face powder and the roots for making medicine.
The flax fibre called muka is laboriously washed, pounded and hand wrung to make soft for the skin. Muka whenu (cords)form the basecloth for intricate kākahu (cloak/garments) such as the kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), a highly prized traditional garment. Cloaks adorned with colourful feathers from the native birds i.e. huia, kiwi, tui, kererū (woodpigeon) and kākā (parrot), will reference the main type used i.e. Kahu Kiwi, Kahu Kākā, etc .
Kete have a host of uses, from storing food to carrying sacred cloaks and greenstone. Maori could create a kete in a matter of minutes, there was no need to carry baskets when they could always be made from the flax which is widespread in New Zealand. Some baskets had an open-weave construction so that when kumara (sweet potato) were collected, the soil would fall through the bottom, and the water from shellfish would drain away.
Weaving also has a spiritual aspect – an ancient Polynesian belief, shared by Māori, holds that artists are mediums through which the gods create.
In the very early 1800s the quality of rope materials made from New Zealand flax was already widely known internationally, as was the quality of New Zealand trees which were used for spars and masts, and the Royal Navy was one of the very largest customers.
The flax trade burgeoned, especially after male Māori recognised the advantages of trade and adapted to helping in the harvesting and dressing of flax which had previously been done exclusively by females. The industry thrived for 150 years until artificial fibres finally caused its demise.
Phormium fibres are still used to make craft paper and there have been attempts at utilising the plant for commercial paper production.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 25 Seeds Common Name New Zealand Flax Family Xanthorrhoeaceae Genus Phormium Species tenax Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers June to August Foliage Evergreen. Height 1.5 to 2m (3 to 6ft) in 2 to 5 years Spacing 1.5 to 2m (3 to 6ft) Position Prefers Full Sun but will grow in partial shade Soil Prefer well drained, fertile soil, but can succeed in both sandy and clay soils.
They also can be very drought-resistant.
Time to Sow Sow in Spring (Feb to April) or in Autumn (Sept to Oct) Germination Germination is easy but can be erratic, between 30 to 180 days Notes Common Missspellings: Formium, Phormeum, Formeum, Phormiam, Phormuim