Harakeke – flaxing its botanical muscle

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 9 minutes

Harakeke or New Zealand flax is one of the most versatile plants in Aotearoa, used by the Māori and early pakeha settlers, loved by our native birds, and painted by Kiwi artists.

The tall, green, sword-like leaves of common flax that can be found growing throughout New Zealand are familiar to most people in this country.

According to the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, flax (Phormium tenax), unique to New Zealand, is one of our most ancient plant species. It is not a true flax like linen flax (Linum usitatissimum) and is actually related to the day lily.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 9 minutes

Harakeke or New Zealand flax is one of the most versatile plants in Aotearoa, used by the Māori and early pakeha settlers, loved by our native birds, and painted by Kiwi artists.

The tall, green, sword-like leaves of common flax that can be found growing throughout New Zealand are familiar to most people in this country.

According to the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, flax (Phormium tenax), unique to New Zealand, is one of our most ancient plant species. It is not a true flax like linen flax (Linum usitatissimum) and is actually related to the day lily.

Harakeke was the name given to this plant by Māori. The first European traders called it ‘flax’ because its fibres were similar to that of true flax found in other parts of the world.

Harakeke flower Photo: Alina Suchanski

Of the two identified species of flax in Aotearoa, harakeke (common flax) grows in wet areas, along streams and rivers and around bogs, while wharariki (mountain flax) is found both at higher altitudes and along exposed coastlines.

Harakeke bushes will often grow to over three metres, with the flower stalk reaching four metres. Its seedpods point up. Wharariki is smaller, seldom reaching more than 1.5 metres high, and its seedpods hang down.

Within the two flax species, there are numerous varieties. Some have drooping, floppy leaves while others grow rigid and upright. The flax leaves can be green, yellow, or red with some varieties being variegated, while their flowers can vary in colour from yellow to red to orange.

Flax was the most important fibre plant to Māori in New Zealand. Each (inhabitants of a fortified place) or marae typically had a ‘pā harakeke’, or flax plantation. Different varieties were specially grown for their strength, softness, colour, and fibre content.

Almost every part of the plant is useful. Māori people used harakeke leaves for making clothing, shoes, ropes, fishing nets, and bird cages. They also wove kete (baskets) from it, and whāriki (mats) for sleeping on or to decorate their homes. The plant was used in ancient Māori medicine, although the oil was pressed from the leaves rather than the seeds.

The sticky sap or gum that flax produces was applied to boils and wounds and used for toothache. Flax leaves were used in binding broken bones and matted leaves were used as dressings. Flax root juice was routinely applied to wounds as a disinfectant. The abundant nectar from flax flowers was used to sweeten food and beverages.

The importance of harakeke to the Māori is reflected in many customs, traditions, and predictions related to it. One such tradition relates to the special way to cut flax leaves and to process them for weaving.

Māori usually say a karakia (prayer) when harvesting leaves for use. In the karakia, thanks is given for the plant, as well as asking that no harm come to the plant, the harvester, or to whoever will work with the cut material or the finished article. The karakia focuses the mind on the task at hand and acknowledges the harakeke as taonga(treasure), (Harakeke, n.d.).

As it develops, the harakeke grows its leaves tightly together, forming ‘fans’; each one has the ability to become a new plant. Traditionally, when harakeke leaves were removed from the plant, only the older leaves on the outside were taken. It was believed the three inner layers of each ‘fan’ represented a family. The outer layer represented the grandparents, whereas the inner layer of new shoots – the child – remained and was to be protected by the next inner layer of leaves, the parents.

When removing the older leaves, the cut should be sloping downwards, to ensure that rainwater drains away from the centre of the plant, thus reducing the chance of the younger, inner leaves rotting. Several other rules should be observed, for example:

  • Don’t cut harakeke when it rains.
  • Don’t cut harakeke in the dark.
  • Never cut leaves when kōrari (flower stalks) are growing.
  • Don’t cut harakeke when you (a wahine – female) have your mate wahine (menstrual cycle).

The leaves are processed differently depending on their intended use. For making baskets, bags, and mats, each leaf is split into long strips that are then woven together. When making clothes, the green pulp is scraped off the leaves using a sharp edge of a shell to reveal the fibres.

According to Māori lore, abundant flowering of harakeke and cabbage trees in spring foretells a long and hot summer.

Early European settlers considered flax to be a weed and toiled to remove it from vast areas of swamps and wetlands to make room for pasture or vegetable gardens. The Christchurch suburb of Marshlands was once a swampland filled with harakeke bushes that was ‘broken-in’ by Europeans who worked hard to turn it into productive farmland growing carrots, cabbages, onions, and potatoes.

Others saw the useful potential of flax. Because of its strength it was a valuable resource to Europeans during the nineteenth century for making ropes and string. It was New Zealand’s biggest export by far until wool and frozen mutton took over later in the century.

Today, flax is used in soaps, hand creams, shampoos, and a range of other cosmetics. Flaxseed oil can also be found for sale. Dry flax leaves and old flower stalks make excellent kindling.

Harakeke is a wonderful garden plant. A single specimen can be a focal point in a small urban garden, attracting not only the human eye by its bold shape and beautiful flowers, but also supporting a large community of animals, providing shelter and an abundant food source.

Tui on flax
Photo: Martin Sliva

A number of native birds, including tui and bellbirds (korimako) love to feast on its nectar. It’s fun watching their acrobatic antics as they try to get the most out of each plant. Tui and korimako are not the only amateurs of harakeke ‘juice’. Endangered bird species, such as saddlebacks (tīeke) and short-tailed bats (pekapeka), as well as geckos and several types of insects also enjoy flax flower nectar.

Harakeke plants are very sturdy and can easily be propagated by division. One medium-sized plant can be split into fans with some roots still attached to produce as many as 20 new bushes. They can also be grown from seed, although it takes longer to produce a mature plant from a seed than it does using the division method.

Planted ‘en masse’ flax plants can be used as borders or hedges. There are many plantings like this along the Southern Scenic Route between Te Anau and Invercargill. These are particularly attractive in spring when flax plants are in bloom.

Although harakeke has been replaced by synthetics in the production of clothes, ropes, and fishing nets, it still plays an important role in supporting biodiversity through providing food and shelter for native species, and as such is a taonga to us all.

 

 

Sources: 1. Harakeke/flax, doc.govt.nz 2. Southland District Council spraying flax bushes again in the south, Southland Times, stuff.co.nz 3. Flax and flax working, teara.govt.nz 4. Harakeke, Christchurch City Libraries

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