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