A modern reference to temperate woody plants, including updated content from this site and much new material, can be found at Trees and Shrubs Online.

Phormium tenax J. R. & G. Forst.

New Zealand Flax

Modern name

Phormium tenax J.R.Forst. & G.Forst.

Leaves erect, of hard tough texture, rigid except at the points, up to 6 or 9 ft long and 4 or 5 in. wide, tapering near the top to a fine point, green inside, glaucous outside, with a red or orange-coloured line on the margins and midrib; they are stalkless, sheathing at the base, keeled, and V-shaped farther up, flattening out more towards the apex which is slit on old leaves. Flowers produced in summer on a panicle 5 to 15 ft high, each flower 1 to 2 in. long, with the six dull red segments separate but assuming a tube-like arrangement. Bot. Mag., t. 3199.

Native of New Zealand, including Stewart Island, the Chatham Islands, and Auckland Island; also of Norfolk Island. It was discovered during Cook’s first voyage (1769-70), but the seeds collected by Sir Joseph Banks and brought home failed to germinate. It was successfully introduced to Kew in 1789.

Although said to ascend to 4,000 ft, it is in the main a plant of the lowlands, common in coastal and swamp associations. It is a very variable species, and the description given above is of a cultivated example and is not intended to represent the species as a whole. According to Moore and Edgar, in Flora of New Zealand, Vol. 2, the leading characters of P. tenax are the stiff more or less erect leaves up to 10 ft long, the usually dull red flowers, the straight carpels and the erect, straight, dark coloured seed-vessel. For cultivation, hardiness, etc., see introductory note.

cv. ‘Purpureum’. – Leaves purplish, up to 6 ft high. The name should probably be taken to indicate a group rather than a single clone, since this form comes more or less true from seed.

cv. ‘Variegatum’. – A tall-growing variety, the leaves of which are striped with creamy yellow. Put into commerce by Messrs Veitch in 1870.

cv. ‘Veitchii’. – A fairly dwarf variety with narrowish leaves, variegated with stripes and bands of creamy yellow, some leaves wholly of that colour except at the margin; ground-colour rich green. Put into commerce by Messrs Veitch in 1866.

For other garden varieties, available in New Zealand, see the R.H.S. Year­book Lilies and other Liliaceae (1973), pp. 82-5 and L. J. Metcalf, The Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs (1972), pp. 208-12.

The leaves of P. tenax yield one of the finest fibres known. The Maoris put it to many uses, and recognised numerous races and local varieties, which they distinguished according to the quality of the fibre. An interesting account of these was published in Hector, Phormium tenax as a Fibrous Plant, 2nd ed. (1889), pp. 76-80.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

The cultivars of New Zealand origin now in commerce are very numerous and not fully tested for hardiness. Since this species and P. cookianum have hybridised, the proper position of some cultivars usually listed under P. tenax is uncertain, though drooping leaves do not necessarily indicate the influence of the former.

Among the most notable of the new introductions are ‘Dazzler’, with partly pendulous leaves, maroon purple with pink stripes; ‘Sundowner’, with wide, erect leaves, reddish at the centre, the margins pink fading to cream; and ‘Yellow Wave’, with erect, almost wholly yellow leaves; all three vigorous. Also ‘Maori Sunrise’, lower-growing, with pendulous leaves variegated at the centre in shades of red and pink, margined with bronze.



Other species in the genus