Keys Homes
Sunday, January 6, 2013
Tasmanian flax lilly is a survivor of hurricanes

By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club

After Tropical Storm Isaac in September of 2012, I kept detailed records of how plants reacted to the storm that hit the east side of West Martello, home of the Key West Garden Club, with particular fury. Some plants lost all of their leaves immediately; others were only wind-singed; still others looked as though they loved the storm and were ready for more.

One of those carefree few was the Tasmanian flax lily (Dianella tasmanica.) The variegated flax lily that grew at the top of the hill and sustained the full winds of Isaac survived without turning a bit brown. This remarkable feat drew my attention. Shortly after the storm, the variegated flax lily put out panicles that held a flustering of small, pale-blue blooms, with three prominent, yellow sepals and three petals.

The star-shaped flowers contain both sexes and are hermaphrodites. The flowers turn into shiny dark blue berries. The berries have a bright blue, spongy pulp that contains small black seeds. The fruits are irritants to the digestive system.

The plant is native to Tasmania and first noted and named by Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) the Director of Kew Gardens. Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, (1817-1911) collected it from Tasmanian aboriginal tribes who chewed its poisonous roots to cure colds. Common throughout Australia, Southeast Asia and India, the taxonomy of this plant is controversial, listing 20 to 40 species.

Seeds of the flax lily do not grow true, which means that a propagator may get a plant unlike its mother plant. Division of its rhizomes is the most common way to propagate this plant.

It grows to two feet in height clumping to 18 inches across. The sriff, arching, strip-like leaves grow in a sheath shaped like a V. The leaf edges are finely serrate and sharp. The fibers in the leaves are often used to make baskets.

The most common variegated variety has yellow or white bands up either side with a green center line. Leaves are narrow, long and grass like. It is a low, vertical-growing ground cover that uses less water than most grasses. It does not make a large cone of dead leaves and therefore is easy to keep looking nice in the garden. Although it's not native, it likes the Keys environment and grows well here. Xeriscaping is perfect for this drought tolerant plant.

If flax lily gets too much water it is attacked by scale: the less water, the fewer pests. Strong breezes eliminate many pathogens. It grows well in bright sunshine but also does well with some shade. Drought tolerant and sea spray tolerant makes the lily a good plant for ocean side spots. Plant borderlines of these hurricane-loving honeys for warm weather climates, but don't let them freeze.

Flax lilies can be grown well in containers and add a variegated bright color to a balcony or garden. Make sure that the containers have holes in the bottom and are well-drained. Do not water until the soil is dry.

Tasmanian lilies are a great ground cover or edging and grow well in the Keys. Add them to the list of plants at your disposal here in the tropics.

Notes:

Winter Luncheon for the Key West Garden Club will be held from 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. at ZaZa's in Sugarloaf Lodge. Contact Sue Sullivan for tickets (305 294-3362)

Stop by West Martello to see the new floral arrangements for January entitled, "Many Reflections."

Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books, "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com

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