Cool, spiky phormium, also called New Zealand flax

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIANS first planted Phormium en masse about a century ago, and with good reason: Those spiky leaves -- long and linear, a muted green that seemed custom-made for this landscape -- were bold yet elegant, an architectural statement born of soil and a modicum of water.

Fickle as we are, the plant might have languished as a mere fad, a footnote in the history of gardening here, were it not for a color revolution: radiant reds, opulent golds, sunset pinks -- dozens of cultivars in new solids and stripes. Credit the magic of hybridization for Phormium that now fits a classic Mediterranean garden or a spare Asian space, a water-sipping xeriscape or a tropical Shangri-La.

For gardeners, there's just one thing to remember: Those rainbow colors that look so exotic at the store can turn pale once rooted in your yard. Plant choice and location are key.

"In seasonally hot areas such as Simi Valley and inland, the newer cultivars, particularly the pinkish and salmon ones, tend to revert their colors and fade," says Russ McMillan, president of Foxtail Farms, which grows Phormium in San Diego and Ventura counties. "It's something we're all working on."

Most growers are raising subspecies of Phormium tenax (also known as New Zealand flax) or hybrids of Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum (sometimes called mountain flax). The varieties can be dazzling, but genetic mutations can cause a plant's appearance to morph under certain conditions. "With flax, it's the color that wants to revert back to the original, more dominant bronze or green colors of its parent or grandparent," McMillan says.

Variegated varieties of New Zealand flax contain two types of tissue: one containing green chlorophyll and another without it, resulting in a striped or streaked appearance. The variegation in some plants is unstable, however, and the leaves may turn solid green or perhaps grow bronze, says Randy Baldwin, general manager of San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara, an early leader in hybridizing and propagating cultivars imported from New Zealand. He says once a plant's colors revert, the change is permanent.

To combat fading hues in hot locales, landscape designer Tim Fiskin of Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar suggests planting flax in partial shade instead of direct sun and giving it plenty of water.

"Almost all plants look better in heat with a bit of shade and some water," he says. "Flax is no exception." Though the plant is touted as drought-tolerant, "remember, it isn't cactus."

Equally important, he says, is choosing a cultivar or hybrid that can take your garden's sunlight and heat without reverting color. Talk to nurseries and horticulturists before you plant. He says most nurseries sell varieties labeled "stable" that hold their hues especially well. Varieties that grow upright -- as opposed to arching and weeping -- tend to fade less.

THE choices are vast. 'Sea Jade' is an upright beauty with blunt-tipped, rich green leaves bearing a maroon to bronze midrib stripe. "It's also often referred to as 'Co-ordination,' which makes things more complicated," McMillan says. "But it will be a bestseller."

For mass plantings, 'Bronze Baby' is popular. Medium-sized and upright, its reddish-brown leaves gracefully curve at the tips.

Garden centers often carry 'Apricot Queen,' a slightly arching plant with twists of wide leaves that are pale yellow with green margins. In the fall, the foliage turns an intense apricot color.

The biggest mistake gardeners make when choosing and planting varieties of flax?

"It's not realizing how big they can get, both height and width," says Mike Partelow, a horticulturist at Roger's Garden. "They'll look fine for a while and then overgrow paths, and people come back and say, 'Now what do I do?' "

Don't be deceived by the small containers of nursery stock. Prior to planting, research the variety's size at maturity and provide room for growth. You don't want to plant a 5-foot-wide 'Maori Queen' inches from a walkway. With flax, proper siting is half the battle.

"I love it when it's used well and hate it when it's used badly," grower Baldwin says. "To me, it's an accent plant, unless you have a big enough space to do a big drift of them. Then they can look incredible."

Containers are another option, albeit a temporary one. Phormium may do fine in a pot for about a year, but then its massive root systems probably will require its transfer to a larger container or planted in the ground.

Not surprisingly, once it's placed with other flora, color is key, according to Joan Grabel, owner of the landscape firm Park Slope Design. She suggests mixing multicolored flax with a single-color variety. "Using different striped flax all together ends up looking chaotic," she says.

Try the multicolor 'Sundowner' next to the simpler 'Tom Thumb.' "They also complement each other because 'Sundowner' is 6 to 8 feet tall and bold, and 'Tom Thumb' is 2 feet and softer, with arching, grass-like leaves," she says.

It helps that flax is so versatile, taking varying amounts of water and usually thriving in full sun to part shade. "It can slip into numerous types of gardens and do fine," Grabel says.

The dramatic foliage can play off other plants nicely.

"Kangaroo paws look fabulous next to the bolder flax," she says. "I love the way 'Rubrum,' with its bold, purple-reddish leaves looks next to Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Marjorie Channon,' with its creamy white and green little leaves." The flax hybrid 'Yellow Wave' looks good mixed into a rose garden, she says.

Baldwin suggests 'Jester' with the red- and yellow-flowering Cuphea micropetala, or candy corn plant. The reddish brown leaf of the flax 'Dark Delight' goes nicely with the silvery foliage of some salvias and santolinas.

"Think harmony and accent -- what colors blend well and support the plants around it," says designer Fiskin, adding that the plant is so architecturally distinctive, gardeners must use the bold color and form carefully. "The eye sometimes doesn't know what to do with it."

LIKE most plants, Phormium grows best if its needs are understood. The plant thrives here because it hails from a similar climate, New Zealand. As the story goes, in 1773 Capt. James Cook was on expedition when he spotted a 7-foot-tall Phormium with red flowers and a shorter variety with yellow blooms. Local Maoris wove the leaves into fishing nets and clothing, so it comes as no surprise that the plant takes its botanical name from the Greek word for basket.

McMillan notes that Phormium does well from seaside to mountaintop, and it thrives in different types of soil as long as it's well drained and not too heavy. Only extreme heat and cold will burn the leaves, and varieties with weeping foliage are most susceptible.

Vigilance against snails and mealybugs may be required, but otherwise, the plant's needs are modest. Simply feed it with a balanced fertilizer two or three times a year, and more important, make sure it's groomed properly.

"Never let a gardener turn on the power and then hack," says horticulturist Partelow, who has seen too many flax plants along walkways shaved to an extreme on one side and left untouched on the other. If you must, cut leaves to the base, evenly around the whole plant. "Otherwise," he says, "you'll end up with something that looks like an odd overgrown poodle's tail."

Cutting should be a last resort. Flax is best groomed like a fern, with the old growth pulled out from the ground as new growth comes in, says Lynne Tjomsland, landscape manager for the J. Paul Getty Trust. This approach allows the plant to retain its proper size and shape. Old leaves that have lost their luster should be removed, along with foliage that emerges solid green when it should be variegated.

It's tempting to cut blooms when they emerge in spring or summer, but leave them and hummingbirds will visit -- just one more charm to add to flax's list.

Claire Closson hadn't even heard of Phormium when landscape designer Grabel suggested planting it. Now that it has been installed, she and husband Kevin relax in the front of their Studio City house, surrounded by long leaves of green, apricot and gold. Pretty, yes, Closson says, but the intangible effect is just as important.

"There's always a feeling of calmness," she says.

INFOBOX

So many shapes, so many hues

When planting flax, one key to success is choosing a variety that's the right size, with stable coloration. Good nurseries can order any type of flax that's not in stock. Some recommendations:

Dwarf:

'Duet': Rarely grows higher than 3 1/2 feet. Green with yellow margins. Stable color.

'Jack Spratt': Grows upright, about 1 1/2 feet tall. Thin leaves are reddish-brown and twisting. Stable.

'Pink Panther': Similar in height but with drooping outer leaves. Deep ruby midstripe with bronze margin.

'Rainbow Sunrise': Sometimes called 'Maori Sunrise.' Pink midstripe and dark green margins.

'Surfer Green': Clumping, upright form. Green leaves, bronze margins.

'Tom Thumb': Upright. Narrow green leaves with reddish-brown edges. Stable.

Medium height:

'Apricot Queen': Three feet tall and upright, with older foliages that arch. Leaves are 1 1/2 inches wide, pale yellow tinged with an apricot coloring and edged in green.

'Dark Delight': Reddish-brown foliage makes this the darkest hybrid readily available in the U.S. Stable.

'Dazzler': The reddest of the bunch: deep maroon with scarlet stripes; 3 feet. Slightly arching. Stable.

'Evening Glow': Usually 2 to 3 feet tall, with weeping older leaves and upright newer foliage. Striking pinkish red.

'Platts Black': Beautiful, inky maroon leaves with a dark gray underside.

'Sea Jade': An upright grower that can reach 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Green leaves that have a dark midstripe. Stable. Also called 'Co-ordination.' Stable.

'Shiraz': Wine-colored leaves. Grows to 3 feet.

'Terracotta': A weeping form in shades of yellow, pink, orange and light green.

'Yellow Wave': Usually at least 3 feet tall. Leaves have a bright yellow central band and bright green edges.

Large:

'Dusky Chief': Can grow 6 feet tall and wide. Maroon-red leaves are striking and very stable, making it quite popular.

'Pink Stripe': Grows upright. Newer leaves have bright pink margins. Another big seller. Stable.

'Sundowner': Can grow 6 feet tall, with upright foliage that manages to spread even wider. Greenish bronze and reddish-pink margins.

'Sunset': Elegant long leaves arch at the middle. Its apricot to pink tones blend with green.

'Tricolor': A wide-growing plant with 2-inch-wide green leaves with yellow stripes and a red margin.

'Wildwood': Graceful dark purple leaves arch at the tips. Usually 4 to 6 feet tall. Sometimes sold as 'Purpureum.'

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