New Zealand Flax (Phormium Tenax) does indeed originate in New Zealand. There they are found in coastal areas, often forming impenetrable thickets. They have shallow but extensive roots, and the long broad ribbon-like leaves extend directly from a narrow base. In favourable summers, long flower stems grow rapidly, each bearing bracts of flowers which, with plentiful nectar, large seeds, and even to provide a convenient perch, attract many small birds – which often have a tell-tale daub of brightly coloured pollen on their heads! At the end of summer, the flower stems dry and harden, and can remain upright for two or three years more, remarkably resistant to wind and storm.
Abrasion of the leaves from being jostled together by the wind results in the leaves being frayed at the edges, with whisps of the fine – but extremely strong – fibres becoming detached. Historically, the Maoris used these fibres in making clothes and other articles – and thus the plant’s English common name is explained.
And before you ask, yes, we could, but we haven’t. Neither time nor inclination. The fibres are certainly not soft!
New Zealand Flax was brought to the UK in the 19thC, but introduced to the Outer Hebrides only within the past 20-30 years or so, I believe. Here, in the islands, the climate is very similar to it’s native environment on the far side of the world, and so it thrives – id only in gardens: for some reason it doesn’t propogate naturally in the wild.
In our walled garden, Phormium Tenax has proved invaluable in absorbing the energy of the wind during storms. It grows rapidly to provide very effective shelter (and without causing the turbulence associated with hard fences or walls), and lends height, shape and drama where we struggle to grow native trees.
We have a number of different varieties, some cultivars having variegated leaves (which tend to be the shorter and more slow-growing plants), others with purple, brown leaves, but the majority have green leaves (although the green varies too).
The shape and habit of the leaves doesn’t vary much, but the flower stems certainly do: there’s tall (up to four metres!), upright and straight ; there’s flailing-about-in-the-wind deep red ; there’s plain ‘n’ purple ; there’s twisted and yellow-orange ; and there’s more besides, but we haven’t found a method (or the time) for categorizing them all!
The only cultivar name we know amongst them is Sundowner – a medium sized plant with variegated bronze and cream leaves, and golden flower petals. It’s also the only variety we have which can be relied on to behave nicely in a confined area – and not end up whipping us around the legs with wet leaves, or smacking visitors in the face with wayward flower stems!