by Jane Scurich
What readily available, evergreen perennial provides year-round colorful variegated foliage, is drought tolerant, fire resistant, undemanding about soil conditions, thrives in full sun to part shade and is deer resistant? And no, the answer is not artificial foliage!
Phormium tenax (FOR-mee-um TEN-aks), also known as New Zealand flax, provides color and form to the garden and will easily adapt to most any Marin micro-climate. These hardy specimens provide dramatic architectural structure to the landscape and ask very little of you in return. Phormiums are members of the Agavaceae family, along with other fiber producing plants such as Cordyline, Dracena and Yucca.
Captain Cook first discovered Phormiums on his second expedition to the South Pacific in 1773. The long, tough, sword-like stalks were used by the Maoris to weave baskets and fabric for clothing. The name “phormium” comes from the Greek for basket and “tenax” from the Latin for strong and tough. Plants were collected by Johan Fisher and his son George on the expedition with Caption Cook. Cultivars made their way to the U.S. in the later half of the 19th century and records show they were growing in San Francisco in 1871.
The ability to acclimate to wet or dry soils and tolerate windy conditions along the Pacific seashore made Phormiums the darlings of landscapers, but soon they became too common and lost favor with designers.
Today newer cultivars and hybrids have created a resurgence of interest in these versatile landscape plants. Tall, vertical striped foliage is available in a range of colors which includes purple-red, brownish red, bronze, copper, yellow and apricot. Upright sword-like stalks arranged in fins emanate from fleshy rhizome like roots. Larger stalks tend to gracefully turn down, revealing even more wonderful coloration. My favorites show edgings of cream, red and lavender.
Container plants at your local nursery offer a wide selection of colors. Remember to read instructions on the label about the expected size of the established plant. Some will grow up to 10 feet high and 6 feet wide. While these are dramatic specimens in the right place, the enormity of the plant may overtake a smaller space. Consider smaller cultivars to better fit your landscape.
I enjoy using these spectacular upright shapes in pots, both alone and in combination with other perennials. By carefully selecting the companion plants for your container anchored by a colorful Phormium tenax, you can have a collection which will offer color and drama throughout the year. The monochromatic collection of purple hued Phormium, variegated sage and thyme is just one combination that has worked well for me.
Phormium tenax produce clusters of small tubular flowers in dark red to yellow sometime between late spring and early summer. I have observed that some years these flower stalks are extremely abundant throughout the county and other years they are hardly noticeable.
A very large species provides a dramatic backdrop to my driveway entrance. Planted more than ten years ago, it is truly majestic. I have learned to severely cut back old stalks to encourage new growth, true to the original plant color.
This non-fussy, multi-purpose plant is easily propagated by root divisions every 2 – 3 years, preferably in the spring. Remove old foliage at the base and divide the mother plant into two or three segments before replanting into pots or the landscape. Trim old fronds at the base to promote the growth of the original color of your plant.
It is also possible, but certainly more of a time investment, to propagate by seeds. After the Phormium blooms, secure a plastic bag around the seed head and allow the pods to dry on the plant. Remove the dried pods, still in the bag, and carefully collect the seeds. The seeds do not store well and should be sown as soon as possible in sterilized soil. Don’t despair if there is no immediate growth—seeds can take up to 6 months to germinate.
Reportedly, the seed can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute—but I’ll stick with my local coffee house, thank you.
I so enjoy the variety of Phormium tenax that I have in my garden, both in pots and in the ground. I hope that each of you readers will look about your garden and find a place to enjoy the beauty of this hardy plant.