Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then


Bold Blades
Phormiums offer dramatic form and spikes of color

You'd expect the blades of New Zealand flax to be so densely fibrous as to repel light, but the striped blades of this Phormium 'Maori Chief' are particularly lovely when backlit by sunshine.
Phormiums are everything you might hope for in a New Zealand plant: tough, extroverted and bold. There is nothing remotely soft or retiring about these evergreen perennials that appear to explode up from the soil with spiky vigor. Phormiums are one of those plants that surged to trendy popularity but crossed over into mainstream gardening. You'll see them in formal gardens neatly contained in urns, providing a clean line amid the tangle of cottage gardens, even anchoring the corners of rose gardens. The effectiveness of architectural plants is obvious once you've seen a well-sited phormium.

With a name derived from the Greek word for mat, phormiums are known in New Zealand as flax. There, the native Maori people used them for matting, clothes and containers - no doubt because their long, fibrous leaves are like hemp or sisal. This strong, ropy quality is one reason phormiums are hard to divide once a clump has gotten too large. But that rarely happens in our climate, which doesn't encourage them to grow so vigorously.

Not only does their eye-catching form recommend them, but also the variety of their colors and size. Phormiums have been hybridized in hues ranging from near-black to apricot, and in dwarf sizes. Two species can be found in the wild. Phormium tenax has sword-like, gray-green foliage and grows along the coast of New Zealand, while P. cookianu, found on mountain slopes, is shorter with arching, less-rigid blades. All the striped and colored phormiums we see in the nurseries have been bred from these two species.

Now In Bloom
Asiatic lilies bloom in June, and while they usually lack the fragrance of their later-flowering Oriental cousins, they make up for it by blooming earlier on sturdy, multiflowering stems. Lilium 'Kiss Me Kate' is unusual in that it has a light, sweet fragrance, along with magenta flowers, each centered with a bright yellow star.

Looking through a local guide to nurseries, I'm astounded to see that 35 different phormiums are available, with intriguing names like 'Sea Jade,' 'Cream Delight' and 'Chocolate Baby.' The thing to remember when getting sucked in by bronze leaves, pink stripes or the dusky dwarfness of P. 'Jack Spratt' (which grows to about 6 inches with narrow, dark-brown foliage) is to check on the hardiness. Some phormiums come through our winters intact, others don't. The pink-striped cultivars tend to be the least hardy of the lot. Even phormiums in pots have sailed through the past couple of winters, but we must be due for some serious cold some year soon, right? It is hard to imagine while we're planting away in June, but it will happen all the same. And if you want your phormiums to be more than annuals, it's smart to choose and site them carefully.

Besides good drainage and as warm a spot as you can find, phormiums want to be kept out of cold winds that can shred their foliage. Phormiums hate clay soil (of which I have an abundance), but I've grown them on slopes and even in flatter areas in well-amended soil. Water thoroughly in the first year or so, fertilize sparingly if at all, mulch well in late autumn, and if a hybrid phormium throws out a blade of its duller, original color (known as reverting), cut that blade off at the base. Removing older leaves in the spring encourages the more brightly colored new foliage. If you ran a cost-benefit analysis on a phormium, it would quickly earn back its rather large purchase price by becoming drought tolerant and requiring little maintenance once established, let alone providing a nearly incomparable year-round focal point.

Such stars of the garden can be hard to mix with other plants, and of course phormiums are effective all by themselves in pots. Phormiums also look great grown with other exotic-looking plants like cannas, bananas or palms. I find them most useful when a garden bed is so filled with rounded or sprawling forms that it cries out for punctuation. Last year I planted a P. 'Sundowner' (bronze-green blades edged in rose-pink) at the front of a bed too frothy with Spirea 'Magic Carpet' and Rosa mutabilis. The tints of the phormium pick up all the colors of the shrubs, emphasized by the golden oregano and maroon Euphorbia dulcis 'Chameleon' carpeting the ground. Now this may sound a bit gaudy - and it is - but the spiky New Zealand boldness of the phormium pulls it all together.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" from Sasquatch Books. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then home
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company