Checklist of Phormium Cultivars
(Prepared for the Nomenclature Committee of the Royal New Zealand
Institute of Horticulture [Inc.])
By Peter B. Heenan
Published by RNZIH, Lincoln, New Zealand, 1991
Reviewed by the late Ross E. Beever
None but the brave would
attempt to seek order in the maze of cultivar names associated with
Phormium. But it is a job that must be done in the interests
of world horticulture, and New Zealand is the natural place to do
the job. The brave in this instance is Peter Heenan of DSIR's Botany
Institute, DSIR Land Resources, Lincoln.
Why bother with sorting
out names? This is not the appropriate place to defend the value
of a standardised nomenclature or naming system, but it can be noted
that the human need to recognise and name Phormium variants
has a long history with about 200 Maori names being assembled for
In his introduction the
author notes three main problem areas that he encountered. First,
the marketing, particularly in recent years, of selections without
validly published names and with little information on their origin.
Second, the diversity of leaf colour and form shown by the same
cultivar under different growing conditions. Third, the variation
shown by the same plant at different ages. These problems are further
complicated by the extensive natural variation within the two recognised
species Phormium tenax (harakeke, New Zealand flax), and
Phormium cookianum (wharariki, mountain flax), the latter
with two named subspecies; and by the ability of the two species
The Checklist comprises
four lists. The first is an alphabetical list of all cultivar names
located (some 380), whether or not the names are valid and legitimate.
This then provides an entry to the second and third lists. The second
gives names, bibliographic citations, and synonyms for all valid
and legitimate names, and provides notes on distinctive features
and origins. The opportunity is taken to formally validate several
names widely used by horticulturists, by providing brief descriptions.
In all, 219 names are accepted, with 131 of these being traditional
Maori ones. It should be realised that the existence of a name does
not necessarily mean that the cultivar is presently known to be
in cultivation. This is particularly true of many Maori cultivars,
and therein lies a task for ethnobotanists in the future. The third
list gives invalid and illegitimate names with reasons for why they
are placed in these categories. The fourth lists the botanical,
as distinct from cultivar, names that have been published in Phormium.
The subtleties of cultivar
nomenclature are a challenge even for specialists in the field.
A few examples will illustrate some of the complexities involved.
Phormium 'Albomarginatum', a plant of hybrid origin had
not been validly described; Heenan provides a description thus validating
'Bronze Tongue' is a new name provided by Heenan for the plant previously
known as P. cookianum 'Nigra', a name that should not be
used because Latin names published after 1 January 1959 are invalid.
'Aonga' is chosen as the earliest (1847) and thus preferred spelling
for a Maori cultivar of P. tenax, synonyms being 'Aoanga'
(Best) 'Aohanga' (Scheele & Walls), 'Aorangi' (Andersen), and
'Awanga' (Heaphy). Phormium 'Bobby Dazzler' is an invalid
name, despite having been published in New Zealand Gardener
in 1990, as no description was provided (i.e. it is a nomen
nudum). On the other hand P. tenax 'Rongotainui' is
also a nomen nudum, but is valid because the name was published
prior to 1 January 1959. P. tenax 'Toitoi' is regarded
as an illegitimate name by Heenan because it is the vernacular name
for another plant, although of which plant is not stated. Williams'
Maori Dictionary indicates it is the name of "a species of kelp"
but is this sufficient to exclude it? It is clear from the Dictionary
that it is not a synonym of toetoe, a name traditionally applied
to many grasses and sedges, and now widely applied to native Cortaderia
The booklet is attractively
produced and easy to use, although I would strongly recommend the
user first reads the Introduction to understand the layout. It would
have been a help to many if a brief, formal glossary of terms such
as valid, invalid, legitimate, illegitimate, nomen nudum,
Hort., and Syn., had been provided. Nevertheless, some are defined
in the introduction and the meaning of others can be gleaned by
reading between the lines. I detected a few spelling mistakes and
layout errors and inconsistencies, but these detract little. Of
more importance is the citing of Charles Heaphy as "Major V C Heaphy".
The V C is correct, but as a decoration for bravery it should be
given after the surname! Also, I would disagree with Heenan's view
that the vernacular English name used in New Zealand for P.
tenax is swamp flax. In my experience the name used is New
Zealand flax, and this is the name given in the floras I consulted,
including "Moore and Edgar" and "Poole and Adams", and also by L.
Metcalf in his authoritative text "The Cultivation of New Zealand
Trees and Shrubs". Additionally it is the name chosen in the
widely adopted "Standard Common Names for Weeds in New Zealand"
produced by the New Zealand Weed and Pest Society in an attempt
to stabilise their area of plant nomenclature. Likewise I would
query Heenan's suggestion that whararahi is a vernacular name for
Phormium tenax. Indeed, his acceptance of the name P.
tenax 'Whararahi' for a cultivar implies that it is not.
The author's task has
been made easier by his having access to the compilation by Charles
Heaphy (1870), the Flax Commissioners' reports to Parliament (1870,
1871), and Scheele and Wall's account (1988) of Rene Orchiston's
wonderful collection of Maori cultivars. One resource that seems
to have been overlooked in the preparation has been Williams' Dictionary
in its various editions. At least some of the names for which Best's
"Forest Lore of the Maori" (1942) is listed as the first
publication, are given in early editions of the Dictionary, the
first edition of which was published in 1841.
Of course the author
has not been able to answer all questions relating to Phormium
names, and he seeks comment and information with a view to revising
the list in the future. To start the ball rolling, I would query
the inclusion of P. tenax 'turepo' as a valid name, as
turepo is the Maori name for Streblus (Paratrophis)
banksii and for S. microphylla. In a similar vein,
is 'paritaniwha' a version of parataniwha, the Maori name for Elatostema
This booklet is an essential
text for all those involved with the breeding, selection, and marketing
of Phormium. Hopefully it will lessen the proliferation
of invalid and illegitimate names in the future. Growers of native
plants, and those interested in Maori horticulture, will want to
purchase it. All will be grateful for the author's efforts.
in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture
1991 2(2): 29
Available from the Royal
New Zealand Institute of Horticulture and Touchwood
Reviews Main Page