Phabulous Phormiums
05 July 2014 - by Lizzy Browne


Having recently increased our range of Phormiums it got me thinking. Iíve often wondered what possesses some people to build up a National Collection of plants. Iíve watched Gardeners World visiting the gardens of the owners of the National Collections of Snow Drops, Narcissus and Geranium. The gardens were about as exciting as Monty Dons sock drawer. And thatís when they were at the pinnacle of their year, with a flowering display lasting, oh, all of one month  (a bit more for the geraniums). I even thought the garden of the holder of the National Collection of Cannas was a bit monotonous, and Iím mad about cannas. But just recently Iíve really fallen for Phormiums and maybe, just maybe, Iím starting to empathize with this acquisitive compulsion. A Phormium collection would be one of year round interest, permanently evergreen and architectural. It would include plants from the diminutive Phormium Jack Sprat reaching only 45cm to the massive Phormium Williamsii towering up to 5m and every size in between. A garden with a Phormium collection would be spectacularly colourful Ė there are all shades of the colours of the rainbow.  -even blue(ish), in the form of Phormium Sea Jade and there are the incredibly black Phormium Plattís Black and Black  Adder.

  Courtesy of Mark Steven

Add to this a monumental flowering extravaganza and a bountiful supply of material for flower arranging. The leaves that is, not the flowers. Although they make a stupendous statement on the plant I canít imagine Phormium flowers would have much vase appeal.

  Courtesy of Dysartian
From New Zealand, there are two species of Phormium: tenax and cookianum. If youíve ever wondered what the difference is, itís usually quite easy to tell. Tenax has more upright leaves than cookianum, whose leaves tend to have a graceful arching habit. The flowers, which are held on long stalks, also give a clue to the species. Tenax flowers are short tubes, held upright on the stem. Cookianum are longer, and pendulous and the seed pods are twisted.  Dangling seed pods of cookianum below 1. Upright flowers of tenax below 2.

    Courtesy of rosie.perera
Phormium, or to give it its more common name, New Zealand Flax, has played an incredibly important role in the economy of New Zealand. The Maoris used the leaves and fibres for baskets, roofing, cooking utensils, mats and, after washing and pounding, they could be used for clothing soft enough to be worn next to the skin. In the 1800s thousands of tonnes of flax fibre were exported to England for rope making. The last Flax processing plant closed in the 1980s but plans may be afoot to develop a paper industry from Phormium. 
Phormiums are easy to grow requiring only a moderately fertile soil. They can tolerate some shade though not total shade and are very hardy, though after the 2009/10 winter we would advise to protect young plants with fleece in winter. The newest, central leaf can be damaged by severe frost but plants usually quickly recover in  spring. Theyíre low maintenance, requiring little water and no staking, and just a quick tidy up of brown leaves once or twice a year improves the appearance of the plant considerably. Whatís more theyíre wind and salt resistant, so are ideal for exposed and coastal gardens.
We have a really good selection of Phormiums available at the nursery in a variety of sizes and plan to increase our range over the coming months. I think there are about 150 cultivars, so, weíre on our way to about 10% of National Collection!!

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