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Fabulous Phormiums

Another 'essential' in the exotic garden, this fascinating group is described in glowing colour. Great pictures by Myles Challis.
Bob Edwards, 84 Greenway Road, Altringham, Cheshire, UK
Chamaerops No. 17, published online 23-07-2002

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Twofab Phormiums! Above: Phormium tenax ‘variegatum’ and P. tenax ‘Goliath’ below.
Pics by Myles Challis

The phormiums offer a unique growth form of upright, arching, sword-shaped, evergreen foliage in a galaxy of colours. Creating an illusion of the sub-tropics when combined with the hardier p alms and other perennials, they are indispensable to the 'exotic gardener'.

Although often lumped-in with the shrubs, they are in fact, evergreen perennials. The genus is in the Agave family - Agavaceae, or sometimes put into a family of its own - Phormiaceae. There are two wild species, Phormium tenax and P. cookianum. The main distinction for we gardeners is that P. tenax is much more upright and much larger, forming clumps 1.5m to over 2.5m in height. Mature plants produce 2m spikes of dark red, six-petalled tubular flowers, bird-pollinated in their native land.

P. cookianum is more arching and smaller with greenish-yellow to yellow flowers on a smaller spike. Originally native to New Zealand and many off-shore islands P. tenax is now found wild in W. Ireland, SW. England, the Azores and other Atlantic islands such as Tristan da Cunha. P. cookianum has naturalised on the Scilly Isles.

P. tenax was originally cultivated by the Maoris for its fibres, from which they used to make mats, nets and clothes. Now both species are used as ornamentals. Many of the cultivars are hybrids between the two species.

They are all easy to grow. Although it is usually claimed that they need a deep, moist soil, I have found them to be remarkably unfussy. They thrive on my very sand y soil in South Manchester, putting up with both damp and drought. They are wind-tolerant, but exposure to freezing winds should be avoided. They need full light, and this is especially important in our dark winters. Temperatures below -10°C are damaging, if prolonged. They can be wrapped up in colder inland areas (as they are during freezes at the Beth Chatto gardens near Colchester). They like to be well-fed and mulched and I find organic or slow-release fertilizers effective. Mulching is useful too, especially in the Autumn.

Although they do well in containers in a soil-based compost, they thrive best when planted out and will grow more rapidly. Propagation is simple. Seed of the species can be sown in gentle heat (155-185C) in spring and will germinate well. Seedlings should be pricked-out when large enough to handle. They then need hardening off and over-wintering with protection before planting out the following spring. Named forms are propagated by division in April. Outer fans of leaves with some roots attached are potted-up after careful separation from the parent. Divisions are best kept in a frame or greenhouse until they are established and growing well. Take care with watering as rot can easily set in.

A league table of the hardiness of the different varieties (hardiest first) would be as follows:

1. Phormium cookianum
2. P. tenax
3. P. tenax Purpureum
4. P. cookianum 'Tricolor' Varieties

I would recommend are as follows: Phormium tenax 'Variegatum' - The largest variegated kind with leaves 1.8 - 2.lm long, variably striped with creamy yellow. Usually imported as a large specimen from Italy, over-winter it with protection for its first year, then plant out the following May.

Phormium tenax 'Yellow Wave' - The upper leaf surfaces are yellow with green lines, and the undersides green. Strongly arching foliage and it grows rapidly for a variegated plant, to about 1m with dull-red flowers.

P. cookianum 'Tricolor' - About the same size as 'Yellow Wave' but with leaves mainly green with marginal yellow bands. Flowers are yellow and quite freely produced. It is a 'good doer' both in containers and in the garden.

P. cookianum 'Cream Delight' - This is lovely. The leaves are mainly cream with green margins. Foliage arches beautifully as in all P. cookianum varieties and it is a stunning focal point, but not a very hardy one. It is also slower growing.

P. tenax Purpureum - A very erect cultivar with stiff bronze-purple leaves 1.2 - 1.8m long. This is often seed-raised as it is more likely to come true than variegated forms. Colour depth is consequently very variable. There are a lot of related selections such as 'Burgundy', smaller and darker, to 1m and 'Bronze Baby' to about 80cm.

In damp conditions they can be planted with contrasting perennials such as hostas, hedychiums, rodgersias, gunneras, Darmera peltatum, astilbes, osmundas, veratrums and Lobelia x speciosa hybrids such as 'Queen Victoria'.

In drier conditions, they look well with other exotic and Southern Hemisphere plants such as agaves, astelias, argyranthemums, hardy palms such as Chamaerops humilis and Trachycarpus fortunei and yuccas.

Phormiums have it all as far as exotics go. Fairly hardy, adaptable, tolerant of a wide range of soils and available in dazzling colours. Any effort spared to grow them will be handsomely re-paid.

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