basic questions about NZ Flax (phormium)

farslayrApril 4, 2006

I was lucky to receive 2 large, beautiful plants last fall, from a forum member. We got them during a pretty good rainstorm and planted them right away, but due to the storm, we hurried and may have planted them a little too deep. The soil was also pretty saturated at the time, so it might have been a little like planting them in cement. Since then I have dug out a little around the plants, so they're not so deep.

We want to move them to a permanant location this spring, so I have a couple questions....

One of the two didn't fair so well and is looking pretty droopy with many yellow leaves. I assume that damaged leaves will not rejuvenate themselves. Can you cut back a phormium and have it grow back to it's former size fairly soon? How far should I cut it back? Can they be divided?

tia

far

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gardengal48

Phormiums generally do pretty well in the Puget Sound area in all but the coldest and wettest of winters. It is typically a combination of overly wet soil with the cold that causes damage or even death, usually from root rot. And a lot of wind can damage the foliage, which is pretty common in seaside locations, even in southern California.

So, first they need very good drainage. As much sun as you can manage is best, but they will take some light shade. The coloring may fade a bit in too much shade. I am not a fan of whacking them back totally - it does take several seasons for them to regain their form and height and they look pretty miserable while that is happening. Discolored or dried fronds can be removed at the base and they divide well if not altogether easily, specially if a large, mature plant. Now would be a great time to divide or transplant.

The only insect problems they seem to develop are mealy bugs and they are darned hard to exterminate once they infest a phormium. I typically recommend tossing the plant once mealy bugs are present, as it is a constant and usually unsuccessful battle to eliminate them.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2006 at 8:41PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

The drooping, yellowish one is probably rotting off--based on your description of the situation. These are definitely marginal plants here, I would try to plant in spring in good soil. I wouldn't bother with them on a site out towards the mountains, where it might get below, say 15 degrees F. at too frequent intervals for them to last very long. If you are in closer and start with fresh plants you may have good resulst for years.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2006 at 10:54PM
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sps_7_14(z8PNW)

Here is another suggestion. Before you toss out the plants, dig them up and wash off the roots. Cut off any roots that are rotten or slimy or smell like rotten eggs. Then let the plants dry out. They can survive for quite a time out of the ground or you can cover the roots with dry peat moss and leave them in a garage or a shaded dry place. New growth will start to show  be patient as long as they donÂt shrivel completely. If you lose a lot of the roots, then you have to cut back the leaves to match.

We had to do this when we had several very wet winters in northern CA. Buying a new plant is the only way to go if the plant was an important focal point of your garden. But if you want to learn a lot about horticulture and get a kick out snatching a plant out of the jaws of the compost heap then give it a try. What do you have to lose? If, however the plant has mealy bugs as mentioned by gardengal, then donÂt bother and I would not even put it in the compost bin.

If they do start to come back  and I bet they do - and you want to put them back in the garden, build a mound with rocks and soil and then plant it near the top of the mound but with enough soil to support the plant. Locating the plant on the side of a hill will also work or any place where water runs away from the roots. The quickest way to kill any Mediterranean plant is to have them in wet soggy soil. They will survive drought and freezing but wet feet will kill them every time!

    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 2:47AM
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sam_wa(7b/8a)

Believe it not, formula 409 (yes, that nasty household cleaner stuff) works really well for killing mealy's on Phormium.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 3:18AM
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gardengal48

I would not consider phormiums marginal plants in urban areas around here. I've grown them for going on 15 years and never lost a single one to cold or winter wet and have had to remove several simply because they became too large over time. I even have several in year round container plantings that are unfazed by even our coldest weather. They are also becoming very common in commercial plantings. Good drainage IS important, but that is pretty much the only limiting factor to their long term success.

Sam, thanks for the tip about 409 - I'll try that the next time mealy's take up residence :-)

    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 10:13AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Last 15 years, of course, is post-1990. It depends on how "long term" and "hardy" are defined. 15 years isn't a very long term. Nor do I consider a plant that reliably persists even that "long" only in the Banana Belt a good candidate for the Hardy category. Likewise, a plant that is able to "Regrow after freezes in Zones 5, 6" (Sunset WESTERN GARDEN BOOK) is still not what is generally considered hardy. In my experience nursery shoppers tend to equate "hardy" with "will live indefinitely without ever being killed back."

    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 12:45PM
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farslayr

thanks for the replies..! this is becoming a fairly common plant around here... not sure if i like that, or not...

    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 1:19PM
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gardengal48

I had my first before the kid was born and she is 15 and a half, so I guess that makes it pre-1990 - 15 years was just a guess. It was only removed about 3 years ago after attaining a size of 6'x6'. Typically, hardy is defined as a plant that will survive normal winter temperatures. Depending on cultivar, most phormiums are listed as surviving from 20-10F, some even to 0F.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 9:56PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Which Phormium is hardy to 0 degrees F.? I'm going to rush out and buy one.

Sunset WESTERN GARDEN BOOK, the 'typical' reference for many gardeners around here:

"P. tenax, P. cookianum, and their forms and hybrids are all harmed by temperatures below 20F/-7C."

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 2:26AM
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henryt(z8VanIsl)

Not like the first time Sunset was off. A great reference but hardly the last word on hardiness here in the PNW. I get the feeling they devoted a lot more attention to their much larger (and more lucrative) California market, but less energy on our area. Just my hunch.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 11:21AM
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gardengal48

And a few other common PNW plant denizens Sunset deems of marginal hardiness in our climate: Choisya, Pittosporum, most hebes, Azara, Eucryphia, Feijoa, Laurus nobilis, Convolvulus cneorum, Arbutus 'Marina'. I'd concede that they are erring on the side of caution but they seem to be overly pessimistic in their assessment, given that these plants seem to grow with ease here.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2006 at 12:08AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Note that earlier I gave 15 degrees F. as a possible typical cutoff or start of difficulty. Obviously, 20 degrees F. is too high because we just had temperatures below that around here and most of the phormiums didn't fry or collapse. (The same cannot be said of some other winters, however). The point was that they are sufficiently tender that Sunset would make that comment.

Perhaps the most impressive ones I have seen in this area are at Oasis Water Gardens in Seattle. Don't know how long they've been there. At this time of the year it is easy to see how different districts vary in conditions they can offer to plants, by noting the variation in development of flowers of commonly planted flowering trees and shrubs. Some areas (and locations) certain kinds are much more advanced now than elsewhere. These same "hot spots" will be the ones that are likely to do best with "exotics" like phormiums.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2006 at 2:08AM
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plantknitter(8)

I'm confused--nothing new there, though--

BUT
1. Since when is Phormium a "Mediterranean plant"?

and 2. Does not Phormium grow IN the water in New Zealand?

But then again, I'm not saying our climate is similar enough to New Zealand, that it can grow in the water here.

My question is;
When growing Phormium in pots, how much fertilizer is usually used to get them up to size?

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 12:36AM
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muddydogs

How fortunate that garden gal has an awesome microclimate. My hardy fuchsias are dead and Oregon growers lost hardy bananas and windmill palms.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 1:14AM
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annzgw

plantknitter,

I have one of the bronze phormium's in a large container that sits at the edge of a covered deck and I've fertilized it, on average, twice during the summer. It's first year I left it in the 5-gal container it came in and the second year I transplanted it to a 20" diameter pot. This will be it's 3rd summer in a container and it's now 4 ft tall and there's only 2-3" between it and the pot rim.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 1:34AM
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homernoy(z8b Bemerton)

Hi Muddydogs.
I have to ask. Are you in Eastern Oregon? My wife's relatives live all over Western Oregon from Beaverton to Eugene, and I have not heard of anything close to what you are refering to. Dead Trachycarpus? How do you know the Fuschias won't come back from the roots? Some years they die back everywhere in the PNW, but usually return, and most of the time bloom better than they did before freezing to the ground. Gardengal has many legitimate points. I could post many pictures of my Bananas, Palms, Eucalyptus, Fuschia, Cordyline, Melianthus, etc...that were unprotected and came through this winter just fine, and I was out of town when the cold came. But that would be a moot point, if you will say I have an "awesome microclimate." I am sorry if you really did lose some palm trees, and your Fuschia's, but that would not be someone elses favored microclimate, but your cold spot that did this winters damage to your plants. My point is that I don't think anyone is bragging here on this thread to annoy you personally, do you?

-Brian

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 1:54AM
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muddydogs

Cornelius and Canby growers suffered with losses of Musa bajoo, Trachycarpus unfortunate, and daphne cneorum. This is a big money loss for all. Phormium tenax rubra is a toughy.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 4:01AM
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gardengal48

I buy many of the plants I sell at my nursery from Oregon growers and so far, I've not had any of them report significant losses from this winter. There was a delay in some early deliveries because of the cold - the ground was simply too cold to dig field-grown plants - but that was it except for some tip dieback on a few evergreen shrubs. A fast trim and they grow out of it rapidly. FWIW, I am bringing hardy fuchsias this week, from a large Oregon grower.

I do have a bit of a microclimate in my own garden but the nursery is aligned with the I5 wind tunnel and it is typically 5-10 degrees colder there in winter. Plants in the display gardens like the phormiums, palms and fuchsias sailed through without problems. The only significant loss was a two year old echium we were hoping would actually bloom this season.

I'm not attempting to equate Puget Sound weather with that of the Willamette Valley - their climate is not quite as mild as ours - but I sure haven't had problems bringing in the plants I need from growers located there.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 9:50AM
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reg_pnw7(WA 7, sunset 4)

Phormium is a 'mediterranean' plant because it grows in what is generally described as a 'mediterannean' climate - warm dry summers, cool but mild wet winters. Called 'mediterranean' because of our historical European bias. 'Mediterranean' climates are found in southern Europe, western Turkey and northern Africa (around the Mediterranean Sea), the Canary Islands, southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the western coasts of Chile and Peru, the Vancouver BC area and WA, OR and California. They're not all alike strictly; NZ gets a lot of rain compared to even us so less of a dry season, and South Africa tends to have dry winters and wet summers instead of wet winters and dry summers. And of course some get considerable frost (like us) and others are largely frost free (like South Africa and San Diego).

I'd never heard that Phormium grows IN the water in NZ. They are wetter than us, with more year round rain, so maybe they grow in marginal wetlands where they're inundated briefly in wet weather? We should ask on the Gardening in OZ forum!

My 2 phormium are in pots and spent the winter out fully exposed in cheap thin plastic (but large) pots. No damage. I only feed them couple-three times a season and my Tom Thumb is much larger than I expected. It did take it a couple years to get to its current size from a 1 gallon can. The other one, I can't remember its name but another dwarf, is not growing terribly fast, this is its second full year with me and no where near up to full size so they can take a while to grow.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 12:34PM
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plantknitter(8)

Here is an excerpt from the December 2004 Heronswood Newsletter, (it came with a picture but I can't get it to print here):

"It is sensational to see the New Zealand flaxes, in the genus Phormium, in their native habitat. The most common and lower elevation species, Phormium tenax, interestingly takes on the ecological capacity of cattails or reeds in the moist westland territory. These encircle every perpetually moist bog and fen and oftentimes are seen emerging from standing water. The evergreen blades to 6 ft. are handsomely mirrored in the water to a most astonishing and unexpected effect. The flowering stems are just beginning to emerge from these mammoth clumps in mid-November. This species was used to an enormous extent by the Maori though is best known for its fiber which produced some of the finest quality linen in the world. Horticulturally, it is as valued here in landscape plantings as it is throughout N. America, with a enormous number of colorfully variegated clones.
The hardier, high elevation species, P. cookianum, grows on stony alpine slopes and does not seem to appear in the same quantity as P. tenax, at least where I have traveled. Selected forms with P. cookianum blood will be prove to be hardier." ~Dan Hinkley

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 1:44PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Not being on salt water, Willamette Valley climate (Sunset 6) is colder than here, the farther south the more so. Compares to western Washington away from Puget Sound, that is Sunset 4 rather than areas with continuous heavy maritime influence (Sunset 5). Hotter Valley summer produces better conditions for producing many nursery crops, as long as these are protected from colder winters or are full hardy. South half of valley can be surprisingly cold, with record lows as far north as Salem below -10 degrees F. Gossler Farms, in Springfield has had trees in their collection that are hardy in Seattle killed to the ground.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 6:35PM
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homernoy(z8b Bemerton)

I talked to a few people, and I guess it did get colder down in some parts of Western Oregon than it did up here, mid to lower teens in some locals. Don't know about dead Trachycarpus, but I did hear of some Phormiums so badly frozen, they just flopped over in a pile of smelly mush after it warmed up. I have no idea what variety though. Talked to my Aunt in Vancouver, Washington, and she said most or all of the Cordylines flopped over after the cold hit down there, though she has no idea how cold it got. Hopefuly it won't be our turn too soon, but I have a feeling our luck is running out! Just dodged too many bullets the last few years.

-Brian

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 6:53PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Evaluation of potted stock overwintering success begins with looking at roots.

17 degrees F. reported from Antique Rose Farm, Snohomish. You don't have to go very far east before the minimum temperatures start falling right off. When I was in Seattle Rhododendron Society around 30 years ago rhododendrons hardy to 10 degrees F. were referred to by members as "tender", as these could not be kept going long without serious damage very far east of the saltwater banana belt. Even as close in as Rhody Ridge, near Lynnwood (Bothell address) such is the case.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 7:52PM
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JudyWWW(z7/WA)

I think what happened down here (Clark County, WA) as well as north Wilamette Valley is that we were very warm mid December through January (I live at 1000' and we had NO frost during this time...just record breaking rain) with trees budding early and then we got slammed by a sudden cold and windy spell in mid March (some below 20) and another round of cold, wind, and snow in early Feb. A very bad sequence. Things like hardy fuchsias are much later than usual but starting to emerge from the roots....last winter many went through the winter in full leaf. jwww

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 10:42PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Some budding things got frosted up here as well. Timing was apparently just right to nail certain magnolias, for instance. Others bloomed out great. It was close: sister siblings 'Spectrum' and 'Galaxy' (USNA hybrid magnolias) in Seattle showed different outcomes, with the first ruined and the other not.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2006 at 10:53PM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

There was no frost at all in January in Portland and then February had below 20* temps.

I am still seeing Trachycarpus and Phormium around town. Not noticing death or damage. Just drove past three taller than 10' windmill palms yesterday. They looked fine and were in an open location.

I had a early blooming Rhodie suffer frost bite on all buds and new leaf tips are damaged too. I am worried about a couple hardy fuchsias planted in the fall and not properly mulched. The rest are showing growth from the roots. My newly planted (late summer) Hebe 'Red Tip's all made it with no protection.

I was actually in Seattle on business when the Arctic Blast hit.

I am not one who pushes the climate envelope so my experiences aren't that useful to those who do but I was just mentally commenting on Phormiums and Trachycarpus yesterday after seeing healthy ones.

I grew up and learned to garden in a warmer climate so I enjoy growing the typical Northwest plants here. Whenever I've pushed the climate envelope Escallonia, some Hebes, Pittosporum, they have failed. Eventually we get a really cold winter.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2006 at 12:13PM
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angieandco

how can I kill my nz flax ? no matter what I do it keeps comming back.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2008 at 8:43PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Dig out the rootstock.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2008 at 9:32PM
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Mary Palmer

angieandco, are you sure you have a NZ flax and not a yucca?

    Bookmark   August 11, 2008 at 1:43AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Ding! I bet that's it. Species grown here can form small patches that sprout from root fragments after removal attempts. New Zealand flax forms a dense tight tuft that you wouldn't expect people to have much trouble dispensing with.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2008 at 12:02PM
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