New Zealand Flax

Phormium tenax
Family: Agavaceae or Phormiaceae more info
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whole plant

leaf tips


  • Angiosperm, monocot, evergreen


  • can reach 10 feet (3 meters) in height
  • mature plants are about as wide or a little wider than high
  • leaves are 3" to 5" wide and 6 to 9 feet long
  • when flowering, the plant can reach much greater heights

Identifying Features:

  • fast-growing evergreen perennial, grows in clumps
  • distinguished by strappy, sword-shaped leaves
  • leaves range from rigidly vertical to graceful arching patterns and fan out from the base in v-shape
  • variety of striped or variegated colors including green, bronze, maroon, and yellow
  • cool weather helps intensify the colors


  • originated in the coastal, lowland swamps of New Zealand and Norfolk Island
  • tolerates almost any environment, but thrives on the sea coast
  • habitats also include beaches, river mouths, alpine lakes, coastal cliffs with sea spray
  • grows well in British conditions
  • harmed by frosty climates and temperatures below 20 degrees F (-7 degrees C)
  • overwinter the plant in sheltered areas, cover it with a thick layer of dry mulch or bring it inside for winter


  • propagates through seeds or divisions of clones
  • flowers contain both male and female organs
  • bloom in the late spring or early summer into clusters of reddish tubular flowers 2 inches long (2.5 to 5 cm)
  • the flowers grow upright on a vertical stalk above the main foliage; the stalk can reach heights of 15 feet (5 meters)
  • rich in nectar and provides a significant food source to birds and insects (like the nectar-eating Tui bird)
  • pollination occurs through bees, birds, and other insects
  • woody, bean-like seed pods develop after pollination, and their hundreds of seeds are later dispersed by wind

Water/Sun Requirements:

  • full sun exposure, but needs light afternoon shade to prevent leaf scorching
  • moderate to little water needs once the plant is established
  • requires moist and well-drained soil

Special Adaptations:

  • very hardy in different habitats, including extremely hot or cold temperatures
  • has been known to survive through an entire summer of prolonged drought
  • no serious problems with pests or disease, but there are exceptions more info

Other Information:

  • the genus Phormium means "basket" or "wickerwork" in Greek, referring to its use in weaving
  • the species tenax means "tenacity" or "holding fast," referring to its tough fibers
  • also commonly known as Coastal flax, New Zealand hemp, or Flax Lily
  • grows well as a container plant
  • USDA zones 8-10 for hardiness
  • primarily used for decorative purposes in landscaping and flower arrangements
  • the genus Phormium contains two species: Phormium tenax (New Zealand Flax) and Phormium cookianum (Mountain Flax)
  • Phormium comes in an increasing variety of cultivars with different sizes and colors more info
  • the Purpureum group of P. tenax is characterized by darker purplish, brownish red leaves


The native Maori tribe of New Zealand centered around New Zealand Flax, which is one of the oldest species of New Zealand plants. They called P. tenax "Harekeke," and they used it as a strong, flexible fiber source to weave baskets, mats, clothing, nets, rope, shoes, and even shelters. Rafts were constructed from the Harakeke's dried flower stalks. They used the nectar as a natural sweetener, the sticky gum-like sap for treating wounds because it has blood clotting enzymes, and juice from the roots as a disinfectant. Pollen was even used as face powder. The Maoris also harvested New Zealand Flax according to a traditional procedure, because they believed the layers of leaves represented the family unit. The roots and new leaves symbolized children, the outer layer of leaves were the parents, and the outermost layer of leaves were the grandparents.

New Zealand flax was discovered on Captain Cook's second expedition to the South Pacific in 1773, but earlier traders had already noted the prevalence of New Zealand Flax on the island. Sir Joseph Banks introduced the plant to Europe after accompanying Captain Cook on his first voyage in 1769. It soon became used in the United Kingdom for manufacturing rope, which created an active New Zealand flax trade between the British Navy and the Maori natives, and eventually made its way to the United States in the later half of the 19th century.

Reference Sources/Links:

Canadian Gardening
Coblands Phormium Fact Sheet
Christchurch City Libraries (Maori)
Dave's Garden
Desert Tropicals
HGTV Gardening
Plants for a Future
Rainy Side Gardeners
San Marcos Growers "Phormium tenax"
St. Helena Flax
The Herb Society of America
Wayne County Cooperative Extension
Wikipedia "New Zealand flax"

Hogan, Sean. "Phormium." Flora: A Gardener's Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Oregon: Timber Press, 2003. 1031.
Brenzel, Kathleen Norris, ed. "Phormium." Sunset Western Garden Book. 8th ed. Menlo Park: Sunset Publishing Corp., 2007. 536-7.
Tenenbaum, Frances, ed. "Phormium." Taylor's Enyclopedia of Garden Plants. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2003. 301-2.

Created by Lina Z. 2007