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Cultivate Plant of Culture with Care

This article was first published on 07 Sep 2016.

Harakeke in the Botanic Garden

Harakeke in the Botanic Garden

Photo by the Otago Daily Times

A Māori chief visiting England in the mid 19th century was reported to have remarked to his hosts: “You people must be very poor. You do not have any harakeke growing here”.

It is difficult to imagine a New Zealand history, culture and landscape without our native flax species. Harakeke (Phormium tenax)and wharariki (Phormium cookianum) grow in a diversity of wild communities, and have been used and cultivated by people in Aotearoa for centuries.

For gardeners there are many things to enjoy about growing flax. Flaxes are tough – most are tolerant of frost, drought, browsing and salt spray. They are adaptable – they can be grown as specimens, in containers, in a mixed planting, as shelter or as hedging. There is a great number of cultivated varieties, with a range of foliage colours, differing heights, and either a weeping or erect habit to choose from.

Although there is a flax variety for most garden situations, people often plant the wrong flax in the wrong place. This is normally a too-large variety that looks great for a while, until its trifid-like growth morphs it into a monster, creating a nuisance for lawnmowers and path ways.

Another common mistake is to assume that this tough plant requires a less than careful method of pruning – think tatty leaves hacked in half, left to brown and degrade, inviting pests and disease. Instead of desecrating these dignified plants, use a sharp blade to carefully remove the outer leaves from each fan. Remove old flowering fans completely.

Kate Caldwell is curator of the native plant collection at Dunedin Botanic Garden.