Today, nearly every garden that is water-wise or water-thrifty includes New Zealand flax. Yet, unlike many drought-tolerant species, New Zealand flax is not adversely affected by an abundance of water.
You can plant it in the middle of a lawn or, as long as its crown stays above the water’s surface, in a shallow pond. In its native New Zealand, it is found growing not only on sandy beaches and wind-swept cliffs, but in river deltas as well.
New Zealand flax (Phormium) is a clumping plant with swordlike leaves that reaches 9 feet in length in some cultivars and stays as short as 3 feet in others. The classic varieties have reddish-bronze foliage, but many colorful types with green and yellow or cream and pink variegation are encountered. Although the plant will grow as far north as Valencia and Newhall, at least, and will adapt to most exposures, it is best suited to partial or half-day, morning sun in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys. It will survive placement in full sun but suffers burnt foliage as a result. The closer it gets to the ocean, the more direct sun it can take.
Keep in mind that the most attractive New Zealand flax cultivars, judged strictly by their appearance in containers at the nursery, are usually the most difficult to grow. The dwarf types with the rainbow-colored foliage require constant maintenance to keep their appeal.
Older leaves lose their variegation and take on a washed-out look.
It is necessary to remove these older leaves on a regular basis in order that new, brightly colored foliage can emerge. If your flax are showing burnt leaves from too much sun, you may be tempted to move them into the shade. However, you have to be careful here as too much shade will bring on mealybug infestation and a decline in overall health from which there usually is no recovery.
There are many other related plants that carry the lance-like leaves of New Zealand flax, whether more fountainesque, arching, drooping or stiff in form. The flax lily (Dianella tasmanica), whose clumps are no more than 2 feet tall, is distinguished by green and white and green and yellow striped cultivars yielding blue flowers and long-lasting porcelain blue berries. The grass palm (Cordyline australis) resembles New Zealand flax when it is small, but eventually reaches 20 feet or more in height. It is more cold-hardy than New Zealand flax and does a better job of holding its foliar color which, depending on variety, may be bronze, reddish-purple or pink striped.
Grass trees (Xanthorrhoea) are stunning complements to New Zealand flax and grass palms, although they are considerably more drought tolerant, surviving in the virtual absence of irrigation. Narrow leaves up to 4 feet long fan out in every direction, creating distinctive vegetative spheres on slowly growing trunks. Flower spikes up to 6 feet tall add to the grass tree’s exotic presence in the garden.
Tip of the week
Agaves and aloes are kith and kin to the plants mentioned above and may be combined with them to complete a garden of clumping, water-conserving plants. The mention of agave may bring to mind forbidding specimens with gigantic, sprawling, sharp-toothed leaves that dominate a garden to an uncomfortable extent. Yet many 2- to 3-foot-tall, perfectly symmetrical agave species are available and deserve consideration as decorous ornamental plants.
Agaves die after they flower but typically produce offsets or pups around their bases so that you will not have to shop for more of them upon their demise. Aloes are famous for their foliar sap and its medicinal effect on cuts and sunburned skin. There are aloes with virtually every growth habit, from trees to vines, and many bear large, attractive inflorescences. These flower spikes, sometimes referred to as candles because of their appearance prior to opening, may be pink, red, orange or yellow.