There are two varieties of New Zealand flax - Phormium tenax or Harakeke and Phormium cookianum or Wharariki. Both are quite large growing, with distinctive sword shaped leaves. Harakeke is more upright and larger, and Wharariki is slightly more 'floppy' and smaller. All 'fancy flax' or ornamental flax cultivars are derived from these parents.
Flax has always been an important plant in New Zealand, especially with Maori. The plant provided food and medicine, the leaves were woven into mats, nets and building materials, the fibre was harvested and woven into clothing. Harakeke was most likely the first cultivated plant in New Zealand, with Maori choosing and prefering certain cultivars for specific uses. These special cultivars were then grown in plantations to meet the needs of the tribes.
Although flax was once a very common plant in New Zealand, and a distinctive part of our landscape drainage of swamps and clearing of land for farming and development has meant that only small remnants of flax remain.
It is now becoming increasingly popular to replant flax. This is an environmentally sensible thing to do, and also brings many benefits such as low shelter for stock, fast and solid screening, ability to grow in very challenging conditions and a very beautiful NZ look to the landscape.
NZ Flax is popular in farm plantings, restoring wetlands, riparian plantings, subdivisions, lifestyle blocks and even larger urban gardens.
Phormium tenax - Harakeke
Also known as 'Swamp Flax' this is the most common of the two varieties in New Zealand. It grows right throughout New Zealand and is tough enough to survive in the mountains or on the coast.
Harakeke has broad, stiff upright sword shaped leaves, growing in fans that form large dense clumps. There is quite a variation in sizing with leaves being from 1 - 3m depending on cultivar. It produces tall, dark dramatic flower spikes with deep red flowers that are filled with nectar and very attractive to the Bellbird and Tui.
As the name suggests it is quite at home in wet swampy ground, and is great for planting in a valley floor or around a waterway. Despite it prefering damp conditions it is very tough and will withstand long periods of dry conditions.
Harakeke comes in two distinct natural variations - green and purple. Both are beautiful and well worth planting in the larger garden.
Phormium Cookianum - Wharariki
Also know as 'Mountain Flax' this name is very misleading as it is also found from mountain to coast. Often found growing perched on a steep mountainside or coastal cliff Wharariki is also a very tough and hardy plant.
Wharariki has softer shorter leaves than Harakeke. The leaves are arched giving the plant a more drooping look. Overall it is a lot smaller than Harakeke, making it useful where a smaller flax is desired.
The flowers on Wharariki are more drooping and often a bright yellow-green colour.
Wharariki is also a very tough flax, and will withstand almost any conditions. It also naturally comes in green and purple variations both of which are very attractive mass planted.
So, no matter which NZ Flax you choose it will reward you with spectacular displays of flowers and will look fantastic mass planted. It is a very easy plant to grow and is perfect for challenging situations.