On one of several voyages to the South Pacific in 1773, the English mariner Captain James Cook spied an unusual plant in the black sands of a New Zealand beach. The largest carried small red flowers above its seven-foot-tall leaves; a shorter, more weeping variety had yellow blooms. More intriguingly, Cook and his men saw Maori people--Polynesians who had settled in New Zealand--weaving the leaves into fishing nets, ropes, baskets and clothes. They used the plant's roots to make medicine and rubbed its pollen on their cheeks. The details surfaced in Cook's journal, and soon traders and collectors were transporting the plant around the world for commercial and ornamental use.
Known botanically as Phormium, derived from the Greek word for basket, the two species Cook found were dubbed New Zealand flax and mountain flax for their tough, workable fiber. No relation to true flax, which is native to Europe, Africa and Asia, Cook's discovery comes only from New Zealand and one Australian island. But it grows beautifully in California. So well, in fact, that by the 1920s, when Charles Francis Saunders published "Trees and Shrubs of California Gardens," he called phormium one of the most extensively used of decorative plants in the region's landscapes. Thomas Church and other mid-century California designers continued the trend, frequently pairing the durable plant with other low-care foliage greens such as philodendrons.
And there, in the verdant background, it might have languished, planted to death but largely ignored, had not a Santa Barbara wholesale nursery called San Marcos Growers fallen hard for some of flax's more colorful hybrids. With exotic names such as 'Maori Sunrise' and 'Sundowner,' the first wave of these new selections, developed by New Zealand hybridizer Margaret Jones, arrived here in the early '80s. Previously green, bronze and dull burgundy, New Zealand flaxes were now red. They had developed stripes. "They were so brilliant, so flashy," says Randy Baldwin, San Marcos' general manager, who remembered phormium from growing up in South Pasadena in the '60s.
Baldwin began growing the hybrids in 1983, first for the cut-flower trade but soon for retail plant nurseries too. Bronze-and-pink 'Sundowner,' red-and-green 'Maori Chief,' and maroon-and-red 'Guardsman' all became signature San Marcos plants, and trendy foliages for the 21st century.
When Baldwin first began experimenting with flax, he noticed that plants eventually grew bigger than expected ('Sundowner' is supposed to stop at five feet but can reach 12), and some lost color as they aged, reverting to plain old green. Over the years, in response, San Marcos has added more small-scale selections ('Jack Spratt,' 'Tom Thumb,' 'Jester'). The nursery has also observed which types hold their hues especially well (for example, 'Sea Jade,' 'Apricot Queen,' 'Dark Delight') and labels them in its catalog as "stable." Earlier this year, San Marcos released a new wave of phormiums, the Lancer series, which focuses on more reliably colorful and compact plants.
Whatever the type, phormiums grow and look best if their needs are understood. Since they hail from a range of habitats--from seaside to mountaintops--they will thrive in a range of soil, if it drains well and isn't heavy. In cool coastal spots, they like full sun; in hotter climates, they need some shelter or their leaves will burn. Extreme cold also can scorch them. Baldwin advises against planting them too close together. "They can look bad when their leaves interlock," he adds, and cautions on using them as accent plants.
Maintenance is crucial. To keep plants from getting huge and ragged, they need annual pruning. Old leaves that lose luster should be cut away, along with leaves that emerge green on an otherwise variegated plant. Once established, phormiums tolerate drought well. Watch for snails and mealybugs, their main pest enemies.
When blooms appear in spring or summer, you can cut them off or leave them to draw hummingbirds. But if you think the leaves alone are showy enough, bring the blooms indoors or snip some for a friend and bind them with their foliage. As Saunders wrote in his book, "You have but to cut off a leaf, split it into narrow strips, and [you] have a capital substitute for the twine or raffia for which you pay money at the shops."
Randy Baldwin, San Marcos Growers, Santa Barbara (805) 683-1561; Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar, (949) 640-5800; Sperling Nursery Calabasas, (818) 591-9111; Seaside Gardens, Carpinteria, (805) 684-6001.