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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
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
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
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
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