FLAX OF LIFE

Plants that have blade-shaped leaves spring­ing from their base must be re­silient wher­ever con­di­tions are windy.

NZ Gardener - - Riverton Plants -

Here on the south coast of the South Is­land, that sort of flex­i­bil­ity makes for long-term sur­vival. It’s no sur­prise that the once-soggy South­land plains were orig­i­nally clothed with

Phormium tenax in all its var­i­ous forms. The com­bi­na­tion of tough con­di­tions, strong winds and more than enough wa­ter at root level meant that more brit­tle forms of veg­e­ta­tion took a bat­ter­ing from weather that orig­i­nated in the South­ern oceans, while the bendy and leath­ery leaves of the phormium group held fast and pros­pered here.

The most strik­ing of them all, harakeke, the best known of New Zealand flaxes, sports the largest of the strappy leaves – its blades stand taller than a man.

It holds strate­gic po­si­tions in my gar­den; usu­ally where the wind has to be met and calmed or along a sight-line from the house where we can watch the gath­ered tu¯ and bell­birds feed­ing on the wai ko¯rari; this sweet nec­tar from the flow­ers re­fills quickly once lapped-up by the bristle­tongued birds, recharg­ing each flower for the re­turn vis­its.

Sim­i­larly styled but smaller of stature, wharariki – the moun­tain flax with its finer look, gor­geously coloured flow­ers, made­for-florists seed­pods and stalks – oc­cu­pies spa­ces that aren’t roomy enough for harakeke, but still ap­peals to the nec­tar­feed­ing birds, in­clud­ing the non-na­tive star­ling that seems to feed on ev­ery­thing it can fit in its beak.

I’ve no idea if they pos­sess a made-fornec­tar-sip­ping tongue, as the na­tive birds have, but if they don’t, it doesn’t seem to hold them back from en­joy­ing the sug­ary fluid that the wharariki pro­vides.

Smaller strap-leaved plants fill in spa­ces in my gar­den that are too petite for flaxes.

Pale green-leaved Astelia ner­vosa, or bush flax as they’re com­monly called, grow wher­ever they can find space and don’t mind at all if the light is weak.

Prise them apart with a cou­ple of forks or slice them into di­vi­sions with a sharp­ened spade and they’ll re­lo­cate com­fort­ably and con­tinue to grow.

I’ve just fin­ished mov­ing some ma­ture spec­i­mens from the road­side where, ac­cord­ing to our friendly lo­cal coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tive, they were en­croach­ing on the road­way. I’ve turned those 10 whop­pers into 80 more mod­estly pro­por­tioned “new” astelia that have taken their places in the body of my gar­den, wher­ever I felt they would add in­ter­est and thrive in the con­di­tions.

Ev­ery year I watch as thrushes feed on the soft orange ber­ries that form close to the heart of the astelias and it al­ways de­lights me to see them tak­ing ad­van­tage of the bounty where the other birds seem not to ven­ture; why, I do not know. Those thrushes spread the astelia seed about and there are in­nu­mer­able tiny astelias be­gun by the birds, some­times in odd places: half­way up a ponga trunk or in the fork of a cab­bage tree; they don’t mind where they grow, it seems.

Closer to the ground and some­what for­eign to these south­ern parts are the ren­garenga lilies.

I planted the Arthro­podium cir­ra­tum wher­ever the sun­light hits the ground un­fil­tered. These lilies come from the north and need all the warmth they can get, so they get prime spots where they can grow un­shaded.

In fact, they don’t seem to mind the cooler tem­per­a­tures at all, grow­ing vig­or­ously and pro­duc­ing their at­trac­tive flow­ers ev­ery sea­son; flow­ers that in turn be­come seed­pods filled with shiny black seeds that strike well when sown in a tray and when big enough, pricked out into small pots to grow on to a size suit­able for plant­ing out into the open gar­den.

These New Zealand rock lilies are com­mon­place in the North Is­land, but down here they’re un­usual enough to at­tract com­ment from vis­it­ing gar­den­ers. They are all healthy spec­i­mens with un­blem­ished leaves and don’t suf­fer from the mal­adies that can af­fect them when grow­ing in warmer re­gions.

The clumps of New Zealand iris also get no­ticed, more for their de­light­ful flow­ers than their form.

They're strappy, for sure, but their leaves are not es­pe­cially at­trac­tive in the way of the oth­ers I’ve men­tioned.

Lib­er­tia ix­ioides are tough lit­tle char­ac­ters that can grow in most con­di­tions found in the south. Mine fit in any space I can find for them and don’t mind if it’s dry or bony. They can, over time, form sub­stan­tial clumps which, like the oth­ers in the wider strap-leaved fam­ily, can be di­vided with rel­a­tive ease and suc­cess­fully re­lo­cated.

Not all of the strappy plants I grow here are na­tive to New Zealand.

One of my favourites is the wild onion or onion weed ( Al­lium tri­quetrum), re­viled by some but con­sid­ered a friend by this gar­dener. What’s not to like? Wild onion grows eas­ily, spreads will­ingly, flow­ers at­trac­tively and is ed­i­ble; the per­fect all-rounder.

I know there are gar­den­ers who don’t like the oniony smell of the vol­un­teer al­lium and oth­ers who fear its habit of in­fest­ing veg­etable beds, but I’m a fan of this wild cousin of the fussy-to-grow onion and I let it go where it will in my gar­den.

I brought onion weed into my for­est gar­den con­sciously and don’t re­gret it for a mo­ment. I have helped it spread around be­neath the fruit trees. It seems to favour grow­ing un­der spread­ing plum trees best of all.

The flow­ers are pretty and ed­i­ble too. The leaves are fresh and al­ways avail­able for sal­ads. And of course, strap-shaped, com­ple­ment­ing all of the other sim­i­larly themed plants I have grow­ing through­out my gar­den.

Flax flow­ers.

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