New Zealand Flax (Phormium sp.) are large strap-leafed evergreen perennials that for many years were placed in the Agave family (Agavaceae) - Current taxonomic treatment has recently created the family Phormiaceae into which Phormium and Dianella have been placed. There are two species in the genus. Phormium tenax, the Coastal Flax, is the larger and more common plant in cultivation; its long strap leaves in shades of green, bronze and maroon are a familiar sight to gardeners in California. The Mountain Flax, Phormium cookianum (P. coloensoi), is a smaller, more graceful plant that has just lately been gaining popularity in California. Both of these plants are useful and attractive in the right situation, but the real gems are the colorful cultivars and interspecific hybrids that have been recently introduced into the California nursery trade. The recent
creation of the Phormiaceae and restoration of historical names has lately added to confusion.
San Marcos Growers has been growing many of the new flax cultivars since 1983. See History of Flax Introduction for a detailed account of how San Marcos Growers became involved in the introduction of new cultivars into the nursery trade. We have grown these plants both as a
container crop and a field crop for cut foliage production. Some of our specimen sized plants have been used in exhibits at the Rockefeller Center in New York and at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. In the demonstration garden on the nursery grounds, each variety that we sell has been planted into a garden setting. In the time that we have been growing and selling this group of plants we have learned much about them. We wish to share our observations and experiences with you. In 1986 we
printed a handout titled "Cut Me Some Flax: Phormium Hybrids". Since that time we have added new varieties to our list and updated information on many of the previous varieties that we listed. Some of our earlier information was from observation of these plants in New Zealand; now we are able to relate our experience with plants grown in California. Have a look at some of our hybrid flax samples.
Cultural practices for the flax hybrids are similar to those for the species with a few exceptions. As a general rule the hybrid flax are not as durable as Phormium tenax and are usually less tolerant to extremely hot or cold temperatures, prolonged dry conditions and heavy soil. We have noted that during the hot and dry Santa Ana conditions we experience in Southern California, sunburn is likely on the cultivars that have the graceful weeping leaves; cold temperatures below 20 F are likely to
scald the leaves of these plants as well. In hot inland valleys it would be wise to use these cultivars in bright shade where there is protection from the sun. The upright growing cultivars are affected less by these extremes in temperature. We have found the hybrids to be nearly as drought resistant as Phormium tenax. Plants look much better with occasional irrigation but can survive
extensive periods without it; once, we let a planting go the entire summer without watering and the plants remained healthy. There is a tendency for the slower growing hybrids to languish in poor heavy soil. If possible, position plants on a slope or mound when given this soil condition. Phormium plants suffer from few other maladies. Occasional long tailed mealy bug attacks can be controlled through sprays, and snails that often use the underside of the leaves for an abode can be easily picked off or poisoned. The most serious pest we have seen on New Zealand Flax is the New Zealand Flax Mealybug (Balanococcus diminutus). An infestation of this pest threatens the long term health of the plant.
The most serious complaint we have on the hybrid flax is the tendency of the colorful leaf forms to revert back to a green or bronze color. When a shoot of an unwanted color is seen on a hybrid plant, this shoot should be cut off at the base. With some of the hybrids it is the new foliage that is the showiest, and it is often best to remove all of the older leaves as the new ones
emerge. In the individual listings below we have indicated the color forms that are least likely to revert by noting them as "Stable". If diligence is used, even the plants most likely to revert can be kept the original color. It should be noted that not all
of the shoots with a different color than the original plant are detrimental; Phormium 'Cream Delight', one of the showiest of all of the cultivars, was a vegetative sport from Phormium 'Tricolor'.
New Zealand Flax is rarely grown for its flowers, as it is the colorful foliage or striking form that is of primary interest. However, Flax will often flower in the garden in late spring or early summer, and are not only showy but also attract nectar
seeking birds. The flowers on Phormium tenax and many of the hybrids are orange-red and held upright on a tall stalk above the foliage. Phormium cookianum, and the hybrids more closely aligned with it, have greenish-yellow flowers that are held horizontally on an arching flower stalk. The fruit that follows is also quite different: P. tenax has its woody bean-like fruit held upright and P. cookianum has twisted dangling fruit. The flowers and dried fruit of both types are useful in large flower arrangements.
What's In A Name?
We are sometimes asked what the common name "flax" means and why it is applied to several very different plants. The fibrous nature of "flax" plants and their usage for items such as rope and clothing is what links such unrelated plants as the "true" or Asian Flax (Linum usitatissimun) and New Zealand Flax (Phormium sp.). True Flax, and its ornamental relative, Yellow Flax (Reinwardia indica), are both dicotyledons in the Linaceae, or Flax family; the New Zealand Flax are monocotyledons that until recently were placed in the Agavaceae, or Agave Family. On Captain Cook's second expedition to the South Pacific in
1773 Phormium tenax was first described, but it was the early traders who came to New Zealand who noted the similarity between its fiber and that of the true flax. These traders observed the usage of Phormium by the Maori, the Polynesian people who had settled in New Zealand. The Maori tribes used the name "harakeke" for Phormium tenax and "wharariki" for the
smaller Mountain Flax, Phormium cookianum. From both of these plants the Maori used the leaves for weaving baskets, mats, head-bands, and other items. They used the fibers of the leaves for making clothing, fishing nets, and ropes. The roots yielded the material to make medicine and nectar was obtained from the flowers as was pollen to make face powder. Even the spent flower stalks were used to make rafts to cross rivers and lakes.
It is from the use of the New Zealand Flax leaves in the making of baskets that gives us the scientific name Phormium, which translates from Greek as basket. The recent creation of the Phormiaceae and restoration of historical names has lately added to confusion. While New Zealand botanists insist that Phormium cookianum is the valid name for the mountain flax, many recent texts, including Sunset's Western Garden Book and The Royal Horticultural Encyclopedia of Plants, have adopted the synonym P. colensoi as the current name. With respect to the treatment of the genus in New Zealand we have retained the name Phormium cookianum.
Slightly arching 3-5 feet tall plant with twisting 1 1/2" wide pale yellow leaves with green margins that flush an apricot color in fall. Stable.
Upright 3 feet tall with 1 1/2" wide dark reddish-brown foliage that curves gracefully at tips. A great medium
sized red flax. Good for mass plantings. Stable.
4 feet Upright growing with chocolate brown foliage. This is a new cultivar received from South Africa.
Phormium cookianum (P. colensoi)
A medium sized (4-5 feet) plant with 2 1/2" wide olive-green leaves that arch gracefully. This is the parent that gives the arch to many of the hybrids. Grows well in shade. Stable.
Phormium cookianum 'Cream Delight'
A broad plant to 3 feet tall with bold 2 1/2" wide arching leaves that have a cream-yellow midstripe and green margins edged with red. Grows well in light shade. Stable.
Phormium cookianum 'Tricolor
A broad plant to 4 feet tall with wide leaves that have a broad central green band surrounded by
yellow stripes and red margins. A popular hybrid since it was produced in the 1950's. Stable.
This slightly arching 3-4 feet tall plant has 1-2" wide leaves that are a dark reddish brown. This is the darkest
flax hybrid readily available in the U.S. Great to contrast against silver foliage. Stable.
A slightly arching 3 feet tall plant with 1 1/2" wide leaves that are striped with deep maroon and scarlet. The reddest of the Flax - Remove old foliage. Stable.
This upright flax grows 3-4 feet tall with 1 1/2" wide maroon red foliage that curves gracefully at tips. A
beautiful medium sized red flax. Stable.
An upright plant to 4-5 feet tall with stiff 2" wide rose-red leaves with bronze-green margins. Red tones fade to a bronze-orange in summer. This recent introduction from New Zealand is only available in limited quantities. Stable.
An arching plant to 3 feet tall with 1 1/2" wide leaves in shades of orange, rose, light green and yellow. Similar if not identical to `Maori Sunrise' - Tends to revert.
This large upright growing flax can reach 6-7 feet with a 1 1/2" wide bronze-maroon leaves that have deep
scarlet margins. This recent introduction from New Zealand is only available in limited quantities. Stable.
A small upright plant to 18 in. tall with narrow 1/2" wide twisting reddish-brown leaves. Our smallest flax -
Great for mass plantings in well drained soils or use in pots. Stable.
A robust upright plant to 6 feet tall with 2 1/2" wide green centered rose-red margined leaves which arch at the
tips. A more refined plant but similar to than 'Sundowner'. Stable.
This Medium sized plant grows 2-3 feet tall with slightly arching 1 1/2 inch wide apricot to rose-red colored
leaves with thin green margins. One of the most beautiful if maintained.
A stiff upright plant to 4-5 feet tall with 2" wide olive-green leaves edged rose-red. Edges fade to a cream
color. Cut out old foliage as it fades.
(Also known erroneously as Phormium tenax `Atropurpureum Compacta') This 2-3 feet tall arching plant
has 11/2' wide leaves of deep maroon-red. It is a vegetative sport of the cultivar `Dazzler'. Stable.
This upright and spreading cultivar grows 4-6 feet tall plant with bronze-green (almost gray) leaves with a broad
bright pink margin at the leaf bases that narrows and gradually disappears at the leaf tip.A very nice new cultivar from South
Africa. Appears Stable.
A small upright plant to 2-3 feet tall with maroon foliage. A new cultivar from South Africa. The name 'Rubrum is
used for several other cultivars which undoubtably will lead to confusion. Smaller and darker than Bronze Baby. Stable..
An upright plant to 3-4 feet tall with blunt tipped rich green leaves that have a strong maroon to bronze midrib
stripe. An unusual and attractive plant. Stable.
A large upright grower to 7-9 feet tall with 2 1/2" wide bronze-green leaves with rose-pink margins that fade to
cream in summer. New foliage is always stunning! Use where there is space. Cut out old foliage.
An upright flax to 5 feet tall with elegant long 1 1/2" wide leaves arch at the tips in apricot to pink tones blending with
green. Cut out bronze foliage to maintain good color. +/- Stable.
A large (8 feet or better) upright plant with 3-4 inch wide olive green leaves. Orange-red flowers form on tall stalks in late spring. Usually grown from seed and is variable. Very tough and useful in adverse situations.
Phormium tenax 'Atropurpureum'
A large (8 feet or better) upright plant with 3-4" wide reddish-purple leaves. Grown from seed
and is variable. Very tough and useful in adverse situations.
Phormium tenax 'Variegata'
A large upright plant to 8 feet tall with green and cream bands running lengthwise on broad 3" wide
A small upright plant 2-3 feet tall with undulating 1/2" wide green leaves with red bronze margins. Our smallest
green flax. Stable.
A medium sized plant to 3-4 feet tall with arching 2" wide green leaves with a central yellow band that fades to
green in fall. +/- Stable.