Gardening: Flexible about flax

By Leigh Bramwell

Flax. Nasty, ratty, spiky, boring plants that look like sticks for a couple of years and then transform overnight into nasty, ratty, spiky, boring plants half the size of your house.

I'd no patience with them until last week, despite a friend who actually collects the things trying desperately to talk me into planting them along a dodgy bank.

Then, as I was driving past a car rental yard I noticed a long border of lush, healthy, graceful, weeping flax. It was a double row, about 120cm high, dark bronze-green, and it looked tidy, useful and well-behaved. Just the thing for a dodgy bank.

The challenge of the week became finding out exactly which flax it was. Even the flax collector wasn't sure, so I consulted magazines, books and, of course, the internet.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I am now a reformed character, at least when it comes to flax, but I have been awakened to the possibilities and usefulness of this New Zealand plant. When the mad flax collector stops crowing about that I'll buy some.

If you like a well-designed garden, the first thing you need to know about flax is that it doesn't have to be messy, ratty and enormous. There are so many varieties available that you can choose just about any shape, size, colour and habit you want. It certainly makes it an ideal plant for matching with your existing garden and architecture. If you have a pink house, finding a pink flax is not going to be a problem.

And it's hardy. It doesn't mind the cold and the wind, and a robust spring gale that will decimate your blossoms and shred your banana plants won't bother your flax nearly as much. Some are a bit susceptible, but many seem windproof. The real wind-lover is Phormium cookianum (wharariki), growing to 1.5m tall, with either weeping or upright foliage. It thrives in dry, windswept coastal and mountain climates.

Phormium tenax (harakeke) is the one that put me off the whole species. It's the tallest of our flaxes, with stiff, upright leaves 2m tall and flower spikes twice that height. It's great for swampy ground but is inclined to suffer from shredded leaves in heavy wind. If you're into weaving, this is your baby.

My search for the perfect flax has taken me to the smaller cultivars that are ideal for mass planting.

The colour palette is impressive - there's even cream, pink and apple-green stripes. Interestingly, it isn't called Phormium "Bedspread". Here are a few from the growers' menus.

* Phormium "Chocomint" is deep chocolate edged with bright green and has an arching form.

* "Platts Black" is a dark, plum-coloured flax that grows to 1m.

* "Surfer" is bronze (as you'd expect) edged with twisted tips to its leaves and a compact 60 x 60cm.

* "Jester" has bright red, pink and green stripes.

* "Cream Delight" has a central band of cream and a deep red edge.

* "Evening Glow" looks like a sunset

* Compact all-green cultivars "Green Dwarf" and "Emerald Green" flower generously and are under 1m.

* Phormium "Black Rage" (great name) has black, weeping foliage. 'It doesn't throw hissy fits and thrives in almost all soil and climate conditions.

* Phormium "Emerald Gem Short", is a spiky 80cm dwarf that makes a bold structural element.

Flax is a sun-lover, so plant in the sun for healthy foliage and good colour. Generally, the Phormium cookianum types prefer drier soils and a windy site is no bad thing because it minimises pests such as scale insect and mealy bug . Most varieties are fairly frost-hardy but don't be tempted to rip off the burned leaves - they'll protect the younger growth inside.

To keep flax tidy - and this is a biggie for me - cut old foliage cleanly from the base with a sharp knife.

Lifting and dividing every few years keeps plants looking fresh and provides new plants.

Dig up the whole plant and whack it into sections. If the roots break, so be it - you'll have difficulty killing it. Trim long or damaged roots and give it a stylish haircut. A fan shape is the go. Replant, water well and wait.

- The Aucklander

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