Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Toasted Flax January 16, 2009

The title might lead you to believe that this is going to be something in the way of a healthy culinary post, but I am not here to extol the virtues of flax as a fine source of alpha-linolenic acid. Nope.

With our spate of awful weather in December, there is one category of plants that is just not looking well these days. It’s the edge-of-zone-hardiness crew, which includes the seemingly ever-popular New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax. Along with euphorbia, I would say this is one of the most often-used (or some may say over-used) landscape plants in Seattle.

Often used as a focal plant due to its impressive size at maturity, the appeal of this plant is undeniable. It provides height and interesting color, strong/sharp shape and a semi-tropical look to our Northwest gardens. Bronze varieties are seen all over the city. Here is a photo of one in my neighborhood, pre-snow, looking really healthy:


Alas, this seems to me to be a classic example of pushing the hardiness envelope a bit too far – according to my plant guide, it’s only good for Zones 9-10 (i.e. New Zealand’s climate), whereas we are normally 8, with a longer dip into the 20sF this year than usual. I am certainly often guilty of this garden sin myself, that of hoping for mild winters so certain tender plants will survive (yeah, I’m talking about you, adorable but not frost-hardy ornamental pomegranate – arrrrrrrrrgh!), so I am not casting any stones here!

Here is what many of them are looking like these days, post-freeze (note: this is a different specimen than the one pictured above):


Poor things. I have no idea if they will recover or not. I’m guessing not. Anyone with experience who can weigh in here? Is it possible for this plant to die down in cold weather but come back from the ground? Or is it likely to be, as I fear, toast? And do you ever find yourself falling for and bringing home plants that you know may be zapped if you have an unusual weather year? Or even a typical one?


14 Responses to “Toasted Flax”

  1. mothernaturesgarden Says:

    Well it was glorious while there. Here’s hoping it is root hardy.

  2. Ohhh my palms are not looking so good right now, the citrus has been moved in but still looks grumpy. I swear what is it with us and trying to grow things that would be happy in say…Florida or Hawaii?

  3. Michelle Says:

    Your honor, I plead guilty! Well, actually, here in zone 9 we not only buy tropicals that get zapped, we also buy things that need a good hard freeze that we rarely get. A lot of gardeners that transplanted themselves from colder climates bemoan the fact that they can’t grow their favorite lilacs, peonies, forsythias, etc. etc. etc.

  4. Catherine Says:

    Funny you should post this. I just noticed a garbage can full of those looking like your after picture. I guess it’s so unusual to get this much snow here it’s easy to try to push the envelope. I’m hoping I didn’t push it too far with the mexican orange I planted last year.

  5. Can’t help you here, as it is not a common plant on the llano. Since we’re zone 7, I guess no one wants to push the envelope much!

  6. Philip Says:

    I have heared from a number of people who have talked about frosts. Evidentally if the ground is wet the frost may kill the leaves. the leaves may die back, but the roots are still viable. one of the biggest problems( especially in the high desert) is dessication. cold dry winds dry the soil and kill the entire plants.
    it is actually rather hot here, which is all rather disturbing.

  7. Daniel Mount Says:

    I’ve cut back phormiums to the ground and had them bounce back fine by mid-summer. The green and dark foliage ones do best, I’ve lost a few of the fancy colored ones over the years. We’ve got a bit of a wait before we’ll see any results, we lost all 3 at the farm, but I’m not about to dig the root balls out. So I hope they come back.

  8. Racquel Says:

    What a shame! They sell those in my local nursery here and supposibly they are hardy in my zone 7b garden. I have no hands on knowledge though.

  9. No help here in Zone 6. Toasted Flax sounds like a lot of fibrous roughage, sure to clean out a system. I am envious of the plant and the space required for it. A plant of that scale would surely be a feature plant in a garden the size of mine. It wouldn’t get lost.

  10. Jen Says:

    LOL re: “pushing the hardiness envelope.” I’m thinking about ordering a fig tree for zone 6 and wondering if I am guilty of this!

  11. angelagoldnz Says:

    from here in NZ – I would say cut it well back to the ground and wrap it in something like burlap saking to protect it from more frosts – it should recover in the spring. You may have to treat it as a deciduous occasionally – but they are pretty tough. There are a number of Phormiums which are better suited to Mountainous temperatures though – such as Cookium. Good luck

  12. jean Says:

    I am not going to cut anything back until the frosts are over, I suppose in March. As sad and ugly as my poor frosted flax and rosemary look, and as tempting as it is to tidy them up, I plan to leave the dead foliage to protect the rest of the plant from further frosts this winter. Not sure this is right, it just feels like it might be.

  13. Curmudgeon Says:

    I’ve been seeing lots of toasted flax, and pampas grass too. I love the bronze colored flax. Our euphorbias are looking okay but the hebe is looking pretty sad. I am definitely guilty of pushng the zone envelope–hibiscus comes to mind.

  14. Megan Says:

    I took a flax like this out a few years ago, assuming it was done. Only to watch all the other neighborhood plantings recover just fine, good as new. And I’d say they looked even rougher. That was the year we had a prolonged period of thick freezing rain. My money’s on this one being back to normal shortly.

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