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Phormium 'Dusky Chief.'

By Debra Lee Baldwin.

This article is the first in a new column by our President, Frank Mitzel. Frank will tell us about some of his landscaping favorites, beginning with "Fabulous Flax."

Landscape designer Frank Mitzel, who creates on average 30 gardens a year for high-end North County homes, says he uses phormiums (New Zealand flax) “in practically every landscape I do.”

“They’re such versatile plants,” he says. I’ve used them in traditional Mediterranean gardens, in semitropical settings, around pools, in drought-tolerant areas with agaves and other succulents, and in Japanese gardens.”

Mitzel positions the fan-shaped, clump forming perennials “singly, as sculptural focal points; in odd-numbered groups, as dramatic background plants, against stucco walls; and wherever I want color contrast. The large ones make good screens, and the smaller ones work well as foreground and edging plants.”

You wouldn’t expect a plant so prized for its foliage to have much to offer in the way of flowers. But phormiums, once established, produce spectacular ones. Tall, branching flower spikes appear in spring and attract butterflies and hummingbirds, which fee on the nectar of the orange-red tubular blooms.

(Rachel Italicize phormium) Phormium 'Pink Flamingo.'

Mitzel and other landscaper designers use phormiums, which are best known for their striking bronze and variegated leaves, as a symmetrical and sculptural alternative to common ornamentals such as daylilies, Nile lilies and lavender. Unlike salvias and other shrubby perennials, phormiums maintain their shape, year after year. Ornamental grasses provide a similar silhouette, but “phormiums always look good, and don’t need to be cut back in winter,” Mitzel says.

If phormiums have a downside, it’s that they’re expensive -$50 or $60 for a plant in a 15-gallon nursery pot. On the plus side, they’re moderately rapid growers, and tough.

The best-known and most-common varieties of Phormium tenax typically grow large – up to 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Hybrids that result from crosses of P. tenax and P. cookianum are newer on the nursery scene and tend to be smaller and have distinctive leaf colors. Some are strikingly dark, making them a great contrast for red, yellow or chartreuse plants. Be sure to choose “stable” cultivars that won’t revert to green.

Phormiums in Frank's Front Yard.

Phormiums with leaves that resemble colorful ribbons - like the ‘Maori’ hybrids – are especially beautiful when backlit by early-morning or late-afternoon sun. And at night, any flax is stunning uplighted. Mitzel uses small varieties in pots, underplanted with ivy geraniums, dwarf Helichrysum, Lobelia and/or Calibrachoa (million bells).

*Reprinted, with the permission of the author, from San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyle, March 2006.

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