This large species of New Zealand Flax can reach 8 to 10 feet with upright 3-4" wide olive green leaves.
The orange-red flowers form on tall stalks in late spring. Nurseries generally grow this plant from seed and it can be quite
variable. It is very tough and is useful in adverse situations, including seashore plantings, wet or dry soils and hot windy situations.
Phormium tenax was first discovered on Captain Cook's second expedition to the South Pacific in 1773. It was collected by Johann & son George Forster and described in 1776.
It was probably one of the first plants noted upon landing, possibly on black sand beaches north of Christchurch as shown above. The toughness of this plant is evidenced by the variety of its habitats, from beaches, river mouths, on coastal cliffs with salt sea spray, to alpine lakes; a plant is ubiquitous throughout the New Zealand landscape.
Phormium tenax made its way in to cultivation in the United States in the later half of the 19th century. It was reported growing in a garden in San Francisco in
1871 and by 1903 J.F. Cowell, the author of the section on Phormium in Bailey Cyclopedia of American Horticulture reported that "Phormium ... plants are popular out door subjects in California and in climates of like mildness, making very bold lawn clumps". As Phormium tenax migrated from the collectors garden into mainstream gardening world, thanks in part to landscape architects such as Thomas Church who used the dark leaved cultivars extensively in 1950's and 60's gardens. However it became so common and its use so prevalent that to quote Bob Hornback in his article "The New Zealand Flaxes" in the Fall 1994 issue of Pacific Horticulture "In time flax was so commonplace that
it was at the risk of becoming downright boring". Mr Hornback further implied that the "New" varieties that are making their way into the horticultural trade here in California have in a way rescued New Zealand Flax from this mediocrity. Flax needed a shot in the arm which it got with the introduction of the new cultivars and hybrids.
New Zealand Flax in the garden