From New Zealand, these dramatic plants have many swordlike evergreen leaves that grow in a fan pattern; they're good massed or used as focal points. Many variegated selections provide year-round color in perennial and shrub borders, on hillsides, in seaside plantings, near swimming pools. Cool weather intensifies foliage colors. On established plants, branched clusters of tubular flowers appear in late spring or early summer, rising to twice the height of the foliage clump in some kinds. Hummingbirds love the flowers.
Rugged New Zealand flax, P. tenax, and its selections are sturdy and fast growing. While most phormiums dislike humid summers and cold winters, New Zealand flax accepts the Southern climate. It takes almost any soil and tolerates drought and coastal conditions; good drainage, how- ever, is essential to success. Grow in containers wherever soil doesn't freeze in winter.
More finicky than P. tenax are forms of P. cookianium and the spectacular hybrids between these two species. They require a bit more water; in hot areas, their arching leaves need afternoon shade to prevent burning.
All phormiums are harmed by temperatures below 20F. In cold-winter areas, you can grow smaller sorts indoors or move larger containers to shelter when deep cold threatens.
Nursery plants in containers are deceptively small; when you plant, allow enough room to accommodate a mature specimen. Cut out flower stalks when blossoms wither. As leaves age, colors fade; cut out older (outer) ones as close to base as possible to maintain best appearance. On variegated sorts, watch for reversions to solid green or bronze; remove reverted crowns down to root level before they take over the clump. Clumps can remain in place indefinitely. To increase plantings, take individual crowns from clump edges; or divide large clumps (not an easy job).
P. cookianum (P. colen-soi). MOUNTAIN FLAX. Leaves arch gracefully, drooping at the tips; they grow 45 ft. long, 2123 in. wide. Mature clumps are 45 ft. tall, spreading to 810 ft. or more. 'Black Adder' grows 34 ft. tall and wide, with glossy, deep burgundy-black leaves. 'Flamingo' grows just 12 ft. high and wide, with leaves in shades of orange, rose, light green, and yellow. P. c. hookeri 'Cream Delight' has leaves with a broad, creamy yellow central stripe and narrow green margins edged in dark red. P. c. h. 'Tricolor' has green leaves margined in cream and red; foliage is flushed with rose in cool weather.
P. hybrids. These crosses between P. cookianum and P. tenax were selected for distinctive leaf color. Leaves are 12 in. wide unless otherwise noted. These are a few you'll find in the South.
'Jubilee'. To 3 ft. tall and wide with green leaves edged with bright cherry-red and completely red underneath.
'Sundowner'. Erect growth to 57 ft. tall and wide, with leaves to 3 in. wide. Olive or bronzy green foliage has stripes of pinkish red (aging to cream) at or near edges and a fine red edge; leaf undersides are grayish green.
'Yellow Wave'. To 45 ft. tall, 57 ft. wide, with 2-in.-wide leaves in chartreuse with lime-green margins. Leaves can burn in hot sun.
P. tenax. NEW ZEALAND FLAX. Large, bold plant with bronzy green leaves to 9 ft. long and 5 in. wide; rigid and mainly upright, curving mainly (if at all) near tips. Mature clumps are about as wide as or a little wider than high. Note that bronze-leafed selections take on a deeper color in full sun.
'Atropurpureum', 'Bronze', 'Purpureum', 'Rubrum'. These names are used interchangeably in the trade for plants with purplish or brownish red foliage that grow 68 ft. tall and wide. Usually grown from seed and somewhat variable; if you want a particular color, make sure you see the actual plant before buying.
'Atropurpureum Compactum' ('Monrovia Red'). To 5 ft. tall and wide, with burgundy-bronze foliage. Uniform; propagated by tissue culture.
'Bronze Baby'. To 3 ft. tall and wide, with 1-in.-wide leaves. Foliage is deep reddish brown aging to deep bronze; narrow orange leaf edges and midrib (on underside) glow in sunlight.
'Chocolate'. To 45 ft. high and wide. Rich brown leaves have reddish undertones.
'Dusky Chief'. Dense clump to 6 ft. high and wide. Wine-red leaves are 23 in. wide and have coral edges that glow when backlit.
'Jack Spratt'. To 1 ft. high and wide, with -in.-wide, twisting, reddish brown leaves. 'Thumbelina' is similar but a little darker.
'Morticia'. To 34 ft. high and wide, with stiff, 1-in.-wide, purple-black leaves.
'Pink Stripe' ('Pink Edge'). To 45 ft. high and wide. Gray-green foliage has a purplish tinge. Each leaf has a bright pink margin that is broader at base, gradually narrowing to almost nothing at tip.
'Tiny Tiger' ('Aurea Nana'). Miniature of 'Variegatum', reaching barely 1 ft. high and wide. Leaves are flushed pink in cool weather. 'Tony Tiger' is a 2-ft. version.
'Tom Thumb'. Upright clump to 23 ft. high and wide. Green, wavy-edged, -in.-wide leaves have red-bronze margins.
'Variegatum'. To 68 ft. tall and wide, with -in.-wide, grayish green leaves that have creamy yellow stripes along edges.
'Veitchianum' ('Radiance'). To 56 ft. tall, 7 ft. wide. Green leaves have a central yellow stripe and lime-green margins with a thin orange edge.
'Wings of Gold'. Resembles 'Variegatum' but reaches just 23 ft. high and wide. Ideal for containers.