Drought Tolerant? Not Really!

I’ve been intending to write this article for some time as recently I gave up on a group of plants that didn’t really live up to the claims being made on their label. I’ve been growing these plants for nearly three years in my front garden and last summer was the summer that I decided that these plants had well and truly had enough time to establish themselves. As a consequence last summer was the summer that they were pretty much on their own.

So here’s what they’ve got written on their labels;

“Low water requirement once established”,

“Tolerates dryness”,

“Drought Resistant”,

And believe it or not the one that I found to be the least drought tolerant of the lot actually had “drought tolerant” written on the label. I had a small row of about 8 of these growing alongside a path and these ones actually died.

And then, even more unbelievably, the only one that actually told the truth had, “will grow in most soil conditions, however they prefer a moist, well drained position” written on the label. This actually turned out to be the most drought tolerant of the lot.

So what are these plants I’m talking about?

Phormium (New Zealand Flax).

Explanation; The varieties I’m talking about here are the ones with variegated and dark foliage. You know, the ones that look fantastic, are everywhere you look in the garden centres and cost 2 or 3 times more than the green one’s.

Why am I so disappointed?

Well I have to say that Phormiums now come in all types of spectacular colours and do look fantastic in modern gardens. As a consequence you can now see them everywhere in housing estates, both in private gardens and also in public landscaping. And they look fantastic……..as long as they get watered……….and guess what…………….because of the drought…………you guessed it………..nobody waters them……….as a result, all of this fantastically coloured foliage is all brown and dead looking. So why not just give them a prune and let it regrow? Well that would be the common sense thing to do………but guess what……..all of these gardeners that planted these plants thought that they were purchasing low maintenance, drought tolerant plants. As a consequence, now as you drive (or walk) around the neighbourhood (we’re now in the middle of winter) all you see are plants everywhere that once looked fantastic but now look messy, dead and ugly.

This Phormium actually look worth just after summer.

This Phormium actually looked worse just after summer. It's regrown a bit, but I'll have to cut it back.

So in summing up all I can say is that Phormium aren’t drought tolerant plants and if you decide to buy them you are going to have to water them in summer and if you don’t then there is far chance that the leaves will get burnt, your plant will look like rubbish and you will have to cut it back to ground level in Autumn, but only if they don’t die in the meantime.

Tip: From my experience, the darker the foliage the less drought tolerant.

So, if you like the look of these plants and want to plant them in your garden then that’s fair enough but you have make sure to water them over summer and then cut all the dead foliage off in the autumn. But if you want low maintenance, drought tolerant plants then I wouldn’t bother with Phormium.

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11 Responses to Drought Tolerant? Not Really!

  • Karen says:

    Hi, and thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment! I love Australian native plants, the few that I know, but haven’t added too many to my garden since I have poor drainage/clay in a lot of it, or serious root issues from a huge cedar tree. I’ve seen some of the plants you feature in California gardens, though, they seem to grow well there!

  • Rebel Gardener says:

    Hi Karen, Nice to here from you. There are lots of very hardy Australian native plants that tolerate clay and badly drained soils. You may have just given me an idea for another article, “Drought Tolerant Plants that tolerate Badly Drained Soils”, maybe?

  • Dave says:

    I’m in Adelaide and I too have given up on phormiums. They look great in the shop but not only are they not drought tolerant but even if you give them huge quantities of water they still burn in full sun – even if only for relatively short periods in the afternoon.
    Waste of money and time and effort. Clumping cordelynes perform much better and produce a similar effect.


  • Marie says:

    HI. Cordyline ‘Electric Pink’ – which looked superb before the Perth heat started has not done well. I’ve been watering them but all 4 have burned and one is unsalvagble. Was hoping that I could replace it with a dark foliage phormium, but from what I’ve read here- no go!

    • admin says:

      We’ve just had the first wet summer for years here in Melbourne and my Cordylines and Phormiums have done really well. Previous to that we were in drought and they really suffered. It all depends on how much water you’re willing to give them. Many have “drought tolerant plants” written on the labels. They’re not really, they may survive without much water (barely) but they won’t look any good!!!!!

  • adelina says:

    Hi guys, I live in a sub-tropical are near Byron Bay and have several old fashioned green varieties and 2 of the newer phormiums – black and an orange/green leafed variety. We have nothing but rain all summer not much sunshine at all and both my newer varieties look like crap!! They have not performed as expected and are even in part shade with morning sun. The old fashioned varieties are looking great. I will be replacing mine with clumping cordylines. I am glad it is not only me that can’t grow the things.

  • Shaw says:

    I have tried and tried and tried with these purple phormiums. We live in Southern California where the spring/summers are hot and very dry. Even with daily waterings my dozens of phormiums look horrible!

    I have probably spent close to a thousand dollars on multiple planting and repeated attempts and thought I was doing something wrong. We already have mostly succulents on our property and I thought this would be a good companion drought tolerant plant. Now I see the problem, it’s not just me. I give up! I have been trying to make it work for over 2 years now and I see it’s not going to get any better.

    • mikeb says:

      Gardening can be an experiment sometimes. It’s unfortunate when it becomes costly though. I bought 6 several years ago and only 1 survived. They are pretty but they aren’t drought tolerant! Try some Kangaroo paws. There are several varieties some aren’t reliable but if you get Anigozanthos flavidus, they are quite hardy and will flower prolifically in spring. Plus they self seed as well . . . if you’re lucky . . . and the flower colour will hybridise.

  • Cheriebd says:

    Thank God. I too have spent quite a lot of money & time trying to grow the beautiful sword-like dark red Guardsman Phormium in my L.A. garden. All started out gorgeous and tall only to slowly & surely die. There is a final one barely hanging on to life with only a few remaining small leaves. The nursery people look at me like I’m crazy. “They’re so easy to grow and in almost any soil.” NOT. I love their look and had designed my drought tolerant garden with these stationed as focal points (supposedly growing approximately 6 feet tall), only to have them refuse to cooperate.
    Thanks for confirming that it’s not me, it’s them.

  • Samie says:

    I run a Nursery in Victoria and we specialize in growing Phormiums or New Zealand Flax, As most people should know they are native to New Zealand so they love and thrive in the cold weather. Drought tolerant means they survive long periods of time without water once established (this can take up to 3 years as they are a very slow growing variety), but a lot of people get confused with that meaning they can handle hot and humid climates without water, and as our climate is regularly changing in Australia especially victoria it is no longer as similar to New Zealand as what it once was and therefore Phormiums are not coping as well with this muggy hot environment that our summer now produces. You will not have much luck growing Phormiums anywhere where there is a lot of humidity it steams the plants and they will rot. They like cold dry conditions generally with a top of 30-35 degrees. Anything hotter and your plants will get sunburn and not cope well, without shade or water.

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