Specimen #25: New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax)
New Zealand flax, a strappy foliage plant, is best known in—you guessed it—its native New Zealand, where the early Maori wove an 18th-century economy out of its long, leathery leaves. They used the plant to make rafts, nets, baskets for anything, and apparel for everyone; in 1803, the plant was named for its useful reliability—Phormium, meaning “basket,” and tenax, meaning “holding fast.”
The plant was stronger than European flax, and it was introduced into Britain in the 19th century. Immediately popular, it was the subject of several promotional pamphlets. One detailed treatise, published in an 1836 journal, is especially enthusiastic, and offers an anecdote that could be titled “How the Phormium seeds got so black.”
The author, an “ingenious adapter of science to the arts of life,” writes at length about the plant, enumerating its uses as a textile (the pamphlet itself was printed on Phormium tenax fibers), praising its size (the leaves grow up to seven feet long in “an upright habit”), and marveling at its “singular tenacity.” He writes, “the icy breath of winter seems to make no impression on them.” Indeed, the plant will happily grow in many settings (estuarine locations, lakes, disturbed habitats, shrublands, wetlands), in unpleasant conditions (where pollution, wind, acidic soil are present), but the author took particular note of a time he encountered the plant in Paris, after a fire.
The author was at the city’s Jardin des Plantes, where a fire had swept through the garden and destroyed three plant conservatories. Surveying the botanic rubble, he noticed a sole survivor: “Phormium tenax, which seemed reduced to a mass of charcoal; yet from these ashes, a new plant, like a vegetable Phoenix, arose, and now lives and flourishes.” A vegetable Phoenix! It’s a metaphor that strikes me as hyperbolic and incongruous—the plant is a strong survivor, I agree, but how can a plant that’s closely related to the daylily family (Hemerocallis) ever support a myth with such gravity? And then I reflect on the seed pods: seemingly scorched of life, impossibly black, and I appreciate the story about a fire in Paris. I can see a bird, a phoenix, and a metaphor that speaks to botanical tenacity in general, and this unusually black specimen in particular.
It’s easy to believe that a branch of pods, mocking like a murder of hooked-beak crows, might have just emerged from a terrible inferno. The color of coal and death, they couldn’t be blacker. And they are mean little things—crooked fingers that beckon and fling their black debris. The debris is seed, of course, hundreds of them in each pod. They’re black as the pods, and while the latter may be on their way to death, the seeds are not. They look like they’ve been through hell, but the seeds are very much alive. They are winged embryos, waiting to be swept up in the wind to disperse over new land. If there’s a phoenix in the story, it is the seed.
Once, a New Zealand flax lived in Paris, where there was a fire. A couple centuries later, a flax lived in the hills of Silver Lake, Los Angeles, where I found it on a Sunday morning after a long rain. The sidewalk was a bright mat of damp bougainvillea blossoms, and the air smelled like lemon eucalyptus. A good day to be a phoenix.