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Phormium species

06 Oct 2005

This page: Species - Botanical descriptions - P. tenax - P. cookianum - Other names


Phormium species

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New Zealand Flax

There are two species of Phormium, both of which are native to New Zealand.

Phormium tenax is known as New Zealand Flax or Coastal Flax. The Maoris call it "harakeke" and use it to produce a wide range of products. The name "Phormium" is derived from the Greek name for "basket" - one of the items produced by weaving the leaves. Phormium tenax is a common plant of the coast and road side in New Zealand. It has long strap-like leaves that can grow up to 3 metres tall and flowering panicles that can be considerably taller. The orange-red flowers are pollinated by birds and develop into erect seed pods.

P. tenax flowers
P. tenax flowers

P. tenax seed pods
P. tenax seed pods

tenaxpod.JPG (18238 bytes)
P. tenax seed pod

Phormium cookianum (also called P. colensoi in some texts) is the Mountain Flax or the Maori "wharariki". It is a smaller growing plant with thinner leaves that are arching rather than erect. The flowers are greenish-yellow and the seed pods are twisted and hang down from the flowering stalks.

P. cookianum flowers

P. cookianum seed pods
P. cookianum seed pods



Botanical descriptions


The following descriptions are taken from Flora of New Zealand, Vol II, Lucy B. Moore and Elizabeth Edgar, New Zealand 1970.

PHORMIUM J. R. et G. Forst., 1776

Fls bisexual. Infl. terminal; peduncle long, sheathed with a series of alt., deciduous bracts of progressively smaller size, the lower ones empty, the upper ones each subtending and entirely enclosing a comparatively short, alternately branched, flowering lateral; smaller bracts quite scarious. Pedicels articulate just below fl. Fls ± zygomorphic. Tepals subequal, erect, forming a tube but connate only near base, c. 12-nerved, marcescent. Stamens > tepals; filaments glab., only slightly flattened, inserted in pit along back of anther; inner filaments a little longer than outer; anthers linear-oblong. Ovary superior, sessile, elongate; ovules 00; style terete; stigma small, narrow. Fr. a long capsule, loculicidal. Seeds cc, flattened, almost winged, black, shining. Tall, perennial, tufted plants, increasing by budding from stout rhizome. Lvs crowded in distichous fans, linear-ensiform, equitant, strongly keeled, marked by cc, fine, close longitudinal striations and strengthened by tough bast fibres. Two spp., one endemic to N.Z., the other found also in Norfolk Id. Type sp., P. tenax.

The taxonomic position of Phormium has been discussed since Hutchinson (Fain. Flow. Plants 2, 1934, 153; 2, 1959, 664) included it in Agavaceae. According to Cave (Lilloa 31, 1962, 179), "comparison of two of his tribes, Yucceae and Agaveae, with Phormium, the only genus of the tribe Phormieae, shows how they differ in delimitation of microspores, apertures in the wall of the pollen grains, the presence of cover cell, the nucellar cap, the hypostase, and the mature megagametophyte.’ Cave further points Out that Phormsum deviates from the other members of the family in being the only genus with (1) equitant distichous lvs and (2) 16 as the basic chromosome number and sugfiests that the genus be excluded from the Agavaceae, proper placement being dderred until more information is available.

The very characteristic branching of the infl, is referred to by Cave as sympodial, but this is hardly an adequate description. Fls open in regular sequence, the flowering laterals maturing acropetally. Within each lateral the first fl. to open is the one furthest from the main axis, i.e. at the end of the first order branch. Similarly the fl. terminating the second order branch opens before that on the third order branch, etc. Each branch arises in the axil of a bract.

The two spp. of Phormium (Hair and Beuzenberg, N.Z. J. Bot. 4, 1966, 266) do not display such a pronounced bimodality of chromosome content as has been reported in the tribes Yucceae and Agaveae (Granick, Amer. J. Bat. 31, 1944, 283—298), the range being c.3:1, as in Cordyline.

Shorland (N.Z. Sd. Rev. 21, 1963, 62—63) reports that work on lf-hydrocarbons clearly separates Phormium (n C 29) from Cordyline (n C 27).

The wide N.Z. literature on Phormium deals largely with the extraction and use of the fibres for cordage, textiles, etc. B. D. Cross (T.N.Z.I. 47, 1915, 61—66) records a detailed study of many forms of the two spp. Allan and Zotov (N.Z. 1. Sci. Tech. 18, 1937, 799—804) report on an artificial cross between P. tenax and P. colensoi, and Allan and Cranwell (Rec. Auck. Inst. Mus. 2 1942 269—279) discuss inheritance of aberrant behaviour in which, in place of some or all of the fls, an infl. produces lfy buds or ‘vivpars’ . Results of extensive breeding programmes associated with commercial growing areas near Foxton, including interspecific crosses, are mentioned incidentally in connection with yellow-leaf disease (Boyce and Newhook, N.Z. I. Sci. Tech. 34A, Suppl. 1, 1953, 10). A thorough modern survey of variation within and between populations is needed.

Key to species

Capsule erect, trigonous, not twisted, dark - 1. tenax

Capsule pendulous, ± terete, valves twisted, becoming pale and papery with age - 2. cookianum


Phormium tenax


1. P. tenax J. R. et G. Forst. Char. Gen. P1. 1776, 48, t. 24.

Lvs 1-3 m. X 5-12 cm., stiff and ± erect, at least in lower part; butt heavy and us. brightly coloured. Infl. to 5- (6) m. tall; peduncle c. 2-3 cm. diam., us. erect, dark, terete, glab. Fls 2.5-5 cm. long, predominantly dull red; tips of inner tepals only slightly recurved. Ovary erect; carpels straight. Capsule us. < 10 cm. long, often much less, erect, trigonous, abruptly contracted to tip, not twisted, remaining firm and dark in age. Seeds c. 9-10 X 4-5 mm., ± elliptic, plate-like but ± twisted. 2n = 32.

Dist.: N., S., St., Ch., A. Abundant, especially in lowland swamps and intermittently flooded land. Harakeke, Korari (the scape), N.Z. Flax. FL. 11-12. FT. 1-3. Type locality: Queen Charlotte Sound. Type: ? At BM, G. Forster’s drawings and paintings show fan with infl. and scale in feet. At P, a small lf and 3 infl. fragments in Herb. Forster are not associated with fls or frs. Found also in Norfolk Id.



Phormium cookianum


2. P. cookianum Le Jolis in Bull. Soc. Hort. C herb. 1848, 71 and in Lond. J. Bot. 7, 1848, 536. P. colensoi Hook. f. Handbk N.Z. FL 1864, 287. P. hookeri Gunn ex Hook. f. in Bot. Mag. 114, 1888, t. 6973.

Lvs mostly < 2 m. long, not so stiff as in P. tenax and inclined to droop; butt us. pale. Infl. to c. 2 m. tall; peduncle c. 2-3 cm. diam., often inclined, dark, terete, glab. Fls 2.5-4 cm. long, us. predominantly greenish, often with tones of orange or yellow; tips of inner tepals us. markedly recurved, one us. more than the other two. Ovary erect, but carpels sts twisted in half turn from base to tip. Capsule often >10 cm. long, occ. to 20 cm., pendulous, almost circular in T.S., gradually narrowed to tip, twisted and becoming pale, fibrous, and more spirally curled in age. Seeds c. 8-10 mm. long, very like those of P. tenax. 2n = 32.

Dist.: N., S., St. Coastal cliffs to mountain slopes, locally dominant on shady faces in high country. Wharariki, Mountain flax. FL. 11-1. FT. 2-4. Type locality: Described from a plant cultivated at Cherbourg "brought directly from New Zealand, where it was gathered in August 1839, in Chaldy (Cloudy?) [Chalky] Bay (460 30’ latit. 1660 23’ long.)". Type: P, Le Jolis.



Other names


P. colensoi, a name used occ. from 1846 (e.g. Raoul Ghoix 41, listed in Enumeratio Plantarum only), was not validly published until 1864 by which time it was antedated by P. cookianum, which Hooker quotes as a synonym.

P. forsterianum, also quoted by Hooker as a synonym of his P. colensoi, remains a nomeo nudum, having been only mentioned in reference to a specimen, but without description, by Colenso in Load. I. Bot. 3, 1844, 8.

P. hookeri was described from plants grown in a garden at Torquay from seed from Mr Grace, a missionary at Wanganui. Hooker recognized it as identical with a specimen found by Ronald Gunn of Tasmania in 1864, at "the Waitangi River, about 30 or 40 miles from the mouth, where it grew pendulous from almost perpendicular rocks, in great abundance". Capsules were described as "pendulis, elongatis, tortis"; one of Gunn’s collecting at K is 20.5 cm. long, one from Torquay 17.5 cm.

Early discussions of Phormium spp. were much confused by the emphasis laid on colours of fls and lvs, and were influenced by the limited range of forms grown in gardens in Europe.



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