Do a web search for “flax plant tripping hazard” and you’ll get zero relevant hits, yet countless Berkeley homeowners have planted this tripping hazard next to city sidewalks, where a passerby who steps on a drooping frond will find herself in the next step falling with force and landing on her chin, palms, and knees, generating bruises, brush burns, and damaged teeth.
I know this because it’s happened to me twice in Berkeley — most recently Sunday afternoon —and these are the only two times I’ve ever tripped and fallen while walking in town.
In the first fall a few years ago, I stepped out of the path of a group of joggers onto a flax frond and fell in the homeowner’s yard, grateful to have made a soft landing. Sunday as I walked, I inadvertently stepped on a low-lying frond of this tough, treacherous plant. It felt as if someone had stretched a rope across my path. I landed on concrete.
New Zealand Flax — phormium — “has been used since ancient times for cordage, fabrics and baskets,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. It is primarily used as a landscape plant today, but occasionally still used in twine; phormium is “New Zealand’s native hard fiber.” Among leaf fibers used by textile artists, phormium is the third strongest after abaca and sisal. “The fibre is found in the long leaves and it can be used to make fine cloth and ropes.”
In a 1996 LA Times article about the desirability of phormuim in home and commercial landscapes, a wholesale grower of phormium advised readers to “avoid planting phormiums in walkways, as they have a tendency to trip passersby.”
It is a beautiful, popular, easy-to-grow plant. When planted too close to sidewalks and not properly maintained, it produces a tripping hazard that could be deadly.
Anyone who has a phormium planted next to the sidewalk should cut away leaves that droop over or touch the sidewalk. They should not let the base of the plant get too wide. They should prune the plant to encourage upright growth.
This video by gardening tutor Mary Frost shows the proper way to prune a phormium. She notes that the tips of the fronds are sharp and can poke you in the eyes. She suggests wearing gloves and safety glasses.