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PLANTS

Flax: Hard to Kill, Easy on the Eyes

July 20, 1996|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask any horticultural expert for a list of up-and-coming plants and phormiums are likely to top it. Heralded by some as "the plant of the decade," phormiums are in hot demand by landscape designers and home gardeners alike.

In the last five years, these easy-to-grow plants with striking, colorful foliage have gone from being obscure collectors' items to stars of home and commercial gardens, said Randy Baldwin, general manager at San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara, a wholesale grower that propagates, develops and sells phormiums to Orange County nurseries.

"The requests for phormiums are incredible," said Baldwin. "We are always scrambling to fill demand. Last year alone we sold 20,000 plants."

Also known as New Zealand flax, these plants can be found at a variety of local nurseries, although supplies are sometimes limited and tend to change regularly. You can also ask your local nursery to order specific flax types from wholesale growers.

Although some phormiums flower, they aren't known for their blooms, but for their striking foliage. These evergreen perennial accent plants have bold, swordlike foliage that resembles giant iris leaves.

The foliage comes in a variety of striking colors, such as pale cream, amber, bright gold-yellow, pink, salmon, apricot, brilliant red, orange, bronze, scarlet, maroon and purple-black. Some come in solids, while others have striping and edging in corresponding colors.

Phormiums' often large leaves blend with most landscapes, but look especially good in Mediterranean gardens.

New Zealand flax also complement tropical-style gardens, said Gary Matsuoka, owner of Laguna Hills Nursery in Lake Forest, which carries a variety of phormiums.

"Phormiums soften up the edges in a tropical garden," he said. "They look nice with hibiscus and they're lower maintenance than agapanthus and daylilies."

There are two species of phormiums. The more common is Phormium tenax, which makes a dramatic statement in the garden. A large, 8- to 9-foot plant with upright, swordlike leaves, it usually comes in shades of green, bronze and maroon. P. tenax does well in drought-tolerant gardens, requiring little water.

The other species, P. cookianum, also known as mountain flax, is 4 to 5 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide. It has drooping, weeping foliage that creates a soft, grassy look.

Hybrids resulting from combinations of the two species have the most brilliant colors and come both in upright and arching forms.

Phormiums range in size from just 5 or 6 inches (Thumbelina) to 8 feet (Sundowner), Baldwin says. Phormium leaves range from as small as half an inch across to as large as 4 inches. Some varieties have variegated foliage.

P. tenax and P. cookianum both flower in the spring and early summer. P. tenax flowers are reddish-orange and grow up to 2 inches long, and cookianum flowers are yellow-green and 1-inch long. Hybrid varieties usually don't flower.

Although some phormiums seem delicate, don't let them fool you. Many New Zealand flax are hardy troopers that stand up to salt spray and thrive in coastal conditions. Some P. tenax can even live in wet soil, as long as their crown isn't buried. As a matter of fact, the word "tenax" means sturdy.

"In the ground, phormiums are drought resistant and seem nearly indestructible," says Matsuoka. "They also do well in containers, as long as you don't allow them to dry out. If they dry out, they will rot when watered again."

In general, hybrid and cookianum phormiums aren't as durable as tenax, but they are still strong plants.

As their name suggests, these flax are originally from New Zealand. They were first cultivated by the ancient Maori, who began colonizing the islands in about 1200. They discovered that the plant was tough and fibrous and used its fibers to make baskets, matting, headbands and household items.

In 1773, Capt. James Cook discovered flax during his second voyage to the South Pacific. European settlers who followed were quick to export shiploads of flax to Great Britain, as it was found to be the strongest natural fiber then known. Europeans gave New Zealand flax the botanical name, Phormium (from the Greek phormos, for basket).

In modern times, San Francisco architect Thomas Church popularized New Zealand flax in the 1950s and 1960s, using them as accents, informal screens and as sculptures in containers.

For the next 25 years, people lost interest in phormiums. It wasn't until the mid-'80s that growers began introducing new, more colorful hybrids, which boosted flax to today's level of popularity.

To grow phormiums, keep these tips in mind:

* Choose your planting location carefully. The more sun phormiums receive, the richer their color will be. Be careful where you place droopy leaved types, however, as these are susceptible to sunburn, Matsuoka said. Plant these types in a location that is protected from the harsh midday sun.

* Avoid planting phormiums in walkways, as they have a tendency to trip passersby, Baldwin says.

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