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New Zealand Grasses and Flax

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C. rubra, the red tussock, is equally lovely. Reddish, bronzy leaves form a dense tuft, and planted en masse these are dramatic and reminiscent of the high country.

C. conspicua is a striking plant with wonderful, feathery plumes of pinkish cream reach 1.5 - 2.0 metres. The leaves are green and arching and form a handsome clump. A smaller alternative to the Toetoe, C. conspicua is both more open and arching while the flower plumes are perhaps more graceful.

Cortaderia richardii, Toetoe
Cortaderia richardii, Toetoe
Cortaderia richardii, the Toetoe, is a wonderful back of border or shelter planting. This tall grass forms a large clump to 2.0m in time, with arching, soft green leaves that are shiny beneath. The tall arching plumes of creamy flowers will reach almost 3.0 metres. Far more attractive that the upright, lumpy flower spikes of its South American cousin the pampas grass (C. soelloana), the Toetoe is from the South Island and where it is found alongside creeks and streams, scrub and on the coast.

C. splendens is taller, reaching as much as 6.0 metres when in flower, and has flower plumes of a creamy gold. C. fulvida is an option for those looking for a smaller version of the Toetoe, reaching only 1.5-2.5 metres when in flower. The flowers can have a pinkish look, rather than the creamy-gold of the other Toetoes. Again it is a streamside plant, preferring moist conditions.

Structural, architectural plants contrast brilliantly with the filmy waving heads of these grasses. The strong statements made by the upward fans and rosettes of native 'flax' are the ideal companions.

Astelias, often called flax, are smaller than the familiar 'claddy' flaxes, Phormium tenax and its relatives. Astelia nervosa has green leaves often tinged with maroon, and a stubby, green flower spike buried deep in the rosette of leaves. It provides a spiky contrast to the rounded hummocks of hebes, rhododendrons and other shrubs and will grow in most soils in either sun or shade. It can tolerate a moist position and is great for providing low-level shelter and draught stopping at the sometimes-open foot of windbreaks.

Architectural flax contrast with wonderful grassy hummocks at Moss Green Garden
Architectural flax contrast with wonderful grassy hummocks at Moss Green Garden

Astelia chathamica
Astelia chathamica
Astelia chathamica (often seen as 'Silver Spear') is a silvery leaved cousin, providing a wonderful colour and texture contrast in the border, cooling hot colour schemes and adding drama to pastels. It is the star of this lovely family.

Both A. nervosa and A. chathamacia make great container plants. Ensure that you give them enough room in a decent sized container and they will make a striking addition to your terrace or entrance. In fact, in northern hemisphere gardens you are more likely to see astelias in containers than in the ground, as these 'toughies' of the New Zealand garden are 'tender' there!

Phormium tenax, New Zealand Flax or harakeke, is the iconic flax, seen widely in marshy ground, at the coast and, increasingly, in street and roadside plantings. Wonderful shelter plants, P. tenax forms a fan of grey-green leaves some 2.0 to 3.0 m high. The deep maroon flower spike, with nectar that is irresistible to birds, can reach another metre over that. After the flowers have finished you can enjoy the seed heads for several months.

P. tenax is unsurpassed for the strong statement the vertical leaves make, for shelter (even on ground where it seems impossible to get anything to grow), and for its ability to shoulder out other less vigorous plants where it is happy. Do not plant this guy unless you are prepared to give him room, keep him under control or get in a JCB to remove him in a few years time!

P. cookianum, the mountain flax or wharariki, is a much more mild-mannered plant. The leaves are arching rather than upright as in P. tenax, and they are a light yellow-green. It grows to about 1.0 metre and the attractive flower spike, this time with bright yellow flowers, is also rich in nectar. The seed heads are hang from the old flower spike, while in P. tenax they are erect. This is the flax to use in the flower border or on a bank, and it will oblige in a wide range of soils and conditions.

There are many, many cultivars of the phormiums available, in colours ranging from apricot to red and green and yellow variegations. The variegated plants will lack the vigour of the parents and some cultivars are susceptible to disease. 'Cream Delight' is an elegant cream and green phormium, there are apricot, bright red and bronze cultivars. 'Green Dwarf' is a neat, architectural plant that will reach 1.0 metre and is extremely useful in the border. Tiny 'platt's Black' will grow only 20 cm or so tall. Look hard before you chose one of the more outrageous cultivars, the species and calmer coloured cultivars have a charm that a strident red selection cannot match.

And if they are so gorgeous why don't we see more of these plants in northern hemisphere gardens? These toughies of our gardens are too tender by far for them and, where they are grown, treated as rarities and cosseted in raised beds, on the terrace or conservatory!

So look again at the grasses that seem to be springing up everywhere and the flaxes that we take for granted, and see how they can work into your border schemes, or make a stunning planting of them alone.

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More Plant Profiles

Phormium tenax
Phormium tenax

Phormium cookianum
Phormium cookianum, mountain flax

Phormium 'Green Dwarf'
Phormium 'Green Dwarf'

Grass en masse
Native grasses en masse

Phormium 'Platts Black'
Phormium 'Platts Black'

Native grasses
A coastal planting of native grasses, astelia and yellow arctotis

More Native PlantsNew Zealand Native Plants or Select Below

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Last revised 02 Dec '02