New Zealand Flax Plant Information: Tips On New Zealand Flax Plant Care


By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) was once thought to be related to Agave but has since been placed in the Phormium family. New Zealand flax plants are popular ornamentals in United States Department of Agriculture zone 8. Their fan-like form and easy growth from rhizomes are excellent accents in containers, perennial gardens, and even coastal regions. Once you know how to grow New Zealand flax, you may be rewarded with 6- to 10-foot (1.8 to 3 m.) wide plants with an amazing potential height of 20 feet (6 m.) in perfect conditions.

New Zealand Flax Plant Information

New Zealand flax plants have two main species in cultivation but numerous cultivars. Cultivars exhibit red, yellow, green, burgundy, purple, maroon and many more foliage colors. There are even variegated flax for exciting foliar contrast. If plants are in warm enough regions, caring for New Zealand flax is a breeze with few insect or disease complaints and hardy establishment.

This flax is named for its fibrous leaves, which were once used to make baskets and textiles. All parts of the plant were used with medicine made from roots, face powder from flower pollen and old blooming stems roped together as rafts. Leaves are keel shaped, coming to a decided point. They can be used as decorative plants in zones 9 to 11 with best growth in zone 8.

New Zealand flax plant information indicates that tubular, showy flowers appear on erect stems but only in their native region and rarely in greenhouse care. New Zealand flax plants offer architectural interest but are not winter hardy and should be brought indoors for winter in most climates.

How to Grow New Zealand Flax

New Zealand flax is a slow growing perennial plant. The most common method of propagation is through division and fully rooted specimens are widely available at nursery centers.

One of the main requirements this plant has is well-draining soil. Boggy or heavy clay soils will reduce growth and can contribute to rotten stems and rhizomes.

The flax tolerates partial sun but will perform better in full sun situations.

New Zealand flax attracts birds and is not attractive to deer. It is easy to maintain, drought tolerant when established and makes a good erosion control. New Zealand flax plant care is minimal once plants are mature, but the flax may suffer damaged and shredded leaf tips in windy and exposed sites.

Caring for New Zealand Flax

Hybrid flax plants are not as durable as the two base species. They require more water and some shelter from hot sunlight, which can burn the leaf tips.

They are reliably hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 C.), but all species can simply be moved indoors in fall to prevent damage. Use a couple of inches of organic mulch around the root zone to conserve moisture, prevent weeds and insulate the rhizomes.

Occasionally, pruning is necessary where damage has occurred due to sun or cold. Cut off dead and damaged leaves as needed.

The flax thrives in poor soils, so fertilization is not necessary, but annual top dressings of finely rotted compost can help add nutrients to the soil and increase percolation.

New Zealand flax plant care is easiest to manage in containers in northern climates. Bring the plant inside for winter and gradually reintroduce it to outdoors when ambient temperatures warm in spring.

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Propagating Phormium Tenax

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Phormium tenax, more commonly known as New Zealand flax, is a colorful evergreen that is often grown for use in decorative displays. New Zealand flax is easy to grow from seed, but plants grown from seed do not always retain the color and size of their parent plants. Cultivars with unusual coloring or variegation are best propagated using root division. This method divides whole plants into discrete sections and replants them to establish new plants.


  • Trim fading or tattered leaves down to the base. Also avoid planting Phormiums under trees that deposit a lot of leaf litter, like redwoods, because the tree duff will settle in the crown and make the plant rot-prone and unhappy unless regularly cleaned of excess duff.
  • Provide well-draining soil.
  • Planting in sun is preferable but some Phormiums (like the pleasantly cascading Phormium ‘Cream Delight’—one of my favorites) will tolerate partial sun.

Above: A dark-leafed Phormium variety boldly holds it own against the silver tones of Senecio, Aeonium, and Agave attenuata. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

On a more productive note: a strip of Phormium leaf is an excellent emergency substitute for twine to tie up plants as it won’t easily break. You are welcome.

Above: A dwarf Phormium is the upright, bold evergreen anchor in this container planting. Container design and photograph by Kier Holmes.

N.B.: Interested in another drought tolerant grass? Consider:

  • Blue Gamma Grass 101 is both drought tolerant and deer resistant.
  • For a perennial that shares these same qualities, see Lavender 101. It’s one of many you will find in our Perennials 101 field guides.

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for new zealand flax with our New Zealand Flax: A Field Guide.

Additionally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow and care for various grasses with our Grasses: A Field Guide.


Plants can withstand temperatures down to about -11°c [15] , but they can be killed in very severe winters in Britain [4] . A polymorphic species [17] , there are many named varieties grown in Britain [4] [13] . This species hybridizes readily with P. colensoi and there are many named forms that may be hybrids with that species [4] . This plant has been considered for commercial cultivation for its fibre, though there is some difficulty in mechanically extracting the fibres due to the presence of a gum in the leaves. An alkali has been successfully used to break down the gum but this weakens the fibre. The Maoris had selected many different cultivars for different uses [1] .

Members of this genus are rarely if ever troubled by browsing deer or rabbits [14] .


New Zealand Flax Caring for New Zealand Flax

New Zealand flax plant or Phormium Tenax is a colourful and a spiky ornamental plant suitable for perennial gardens and coastal areas. The multi coloured plant can be grown easily from the rhizome and the plant has a fan like appearance which can become the focal point of your garden. They can grow to a height of 20 feet and to a width of 6-10 feet under perfect conditions. There are different cultivars of the plant with different foliage colours such as red, purple, green, yellow, maroon, etc. Maoris used the fibre of this plant to make linen clothing, baskets and ropes hence the name flax plant. The plants that are grown in warm regions are usually free from diseases and insect attacks. The leaves of this evergreen perennial are sword shaped. The mature plants produce the flower stalk which shoots up above the leaves and produces red or yellow blossoms. The tubular flowers are very rich in nectar content and attract nectar feeding birds such as honeyeaters in Australia and hummingbirds.

How to Grow New Zealand Flax?

This plant prefers well-draining soil and needs full sun to achieve perfect growth. Heavy clay soil can reduce growth. It can tolerate moderate sun situations. This is a slow growing plant and requires protection from harsh winds till they get well established. They can withstand different weather and soil conditions once they get established. When planted in windy areas this can cause the plants to have shredded or damaged leaf tips.

You can grow the plant from rhizome divisions or from the rooted specimens available from nurseries. They are easy to grow and maintain as the maintenance and care needed is minimal when the plants are mature. It can be grown in containers containing a rich organic mix. The best time to divide the plant is during spring. You can plant the rhizome pieces indoors and allow them to grow a bit before you transfer them to outdoor locations.

Caring for New Zealand Flax

  • They need to be watered during the summer.
  • Excess watering can make the rhizome and stems to rot.
  • These plants are, can be used for erosion control in the garden.
  • The hybrid flax plants are not as tough and are more prone to burning of leaf tips during hot sunlight than the original species and need more protection.
  • It is better to avoid frost exposure. Potted plants can be moved indoors during the frost seasons of autumn and winter.
  • Mulching the plant using organic mulch near the root system prevents frost damage to the rhizomes. Mulching will also help to prevent weed growth.

If there is any damage occurred to the flax plant due to heat or frost, cut off the damaged and dead leaves as required. If the plants get infested by mealy bugs it is very difficult to eradicate the bugs and it is better to dispose of the affected plant.

New Zealand Flax Varieties

There are many colourful and variegated varieties of New Zealand Flax on the market today these include-

  • Phormium Anna Red Flax- clear bright colour of dark red/maroon/purple leaves that grows to 1.2m high, 1m wide.
  • Phormium Jester Flax- has long arching red/pink and bright green leaves, medium to large variety 1.2 metres
  • Phormium Cookianum Greensleeves- apple green sword leaves are great contrasting plant with darker New Zealand flax grows to 90cm and is tough
  • Phormium Tenax Pink Ribbon- has silvery grey leaves striped pink and white on the leaf edges with upright foliage grows up to 1 metre
  • Phormium Black Rage New Zealand Flax- Black/purple good mass planted variety grows 1.2 metres

Apricot Queen, Bronce Baby, Green Delight, Crimson Devil, Dark Delight, Duet, Evening Glow, flamingo, Gold Sword, Golden Ray, Jack Sratt, Maori Maiden, Maori Queen, Maori Sunrise, Margaret Jones, Pink Panther, Platts Black, Sundowner, Surfer, Tomb Thumb Tricolor, Emerald Gem, Firebird, Nigra.

These named varieties are mainly hybrids that originated from the 2 major species Tenax (tall Grower) and Cookianum (low grower).

New Zealand Flax Plant Popular Plant for Floral Art

New Zealand Flax has a great assortment of colourful leaves, the flax plant leaves are commonly used for floral art, the leaves are cut, rolled and glued to the desired floral design or even plaited or woven to create a stunning, effective floral art piece.

These plants can survive well, even in poor soils and therefore there is no need for fertilisation. Adding rotted compost to the top soil can add nutrients and will increase percolation.


Watering

As a rule of thumb, you should remember to keep your Pink Stripe New Zealand Flax in soil with moist but well-draining to well draining characteristics, as these will guarantee the right conditions for your plant to grow and thrive.

When you consider this, this is why you should aim to choose soil that has good drainage, occasional flooding, and occasionally wet properties to keep the right moisture levels at all times.

But, if you want a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to watering your Pink Stripe New Zealand Flax then you should consider the famous ‘finger’ test. To perform this test, you just need to put your finger in your plant’s soil and determine if it’s moist or not. If it is, then don’t water if it isn’t, then please do. In any case, this test will allow you to know if your Pink Stripe New Zealand Flax needs or does not need water, every time.


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