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Plant of the Week

July 16, 1988|JUDITH SIMS

Phormium tenax

New Zealand Flax

Evergreen with bronze-green or variegated leaves

Phormium tenax is an acquired taste. It looks almost dangerous, a plant as weapon--tough and definitely not cute. Passers-by will rarely coo over it.

But gardeners with a good eye for composition and contrast recognize phormium as an invaluable accent to any garden that needs drama, tension, style and class.

It is uncompromising: Stiff, pointed, sword-like leaves grow upright to 9 feet, with older leaves arching gracefully to the side and sometimes spreading as much as 5 feet. In spite of its South Pacific appellation, it looks best in a Mediterranean setting: in a terra cotta pot by a pool, near an olive tree or next to rosemary. It looks rugged in a desert garden and also fills in large gaps in an English-style perennial border.

Although Bronze is the most familiar phormium, other colors are now available and even more striking: Rubrum, a deep purple; Atropurpureum, reddish purple, and Variegatum, green-and-white striped leaves. A dwarf phormium, Tiny Tim, has bronze-and-yellow leaves and grows only 4 feet tall. All varieties have reddish or yellow flowers in clusters above the leaves.

According to growers, Phormium tenax is more popular now than ever before; in this year of too little water, drought-tolerant plants suddenly loom large in responsible landscapes. Phormium not only tolerates drought, it also endures poor soil, bad drainage, excessive heat and cold, even salt air and ocean spray. And besides all that, it will punctuate any garden with an emphatic exclamation point.

Phormium tenax is available at most Southern California nurseries.

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