New Zealand Flax - Harakeke - Phormium tenax
New Zealand flax was named by European settlers after a similar plant Linum. So it seems appropriate to call our flax, which is not flax, by the Maori name Harakeke for Phormium tenax, and Wharariki for Phormium cookianum. Our 'not' flaxes are actually lily. Harakeke, with double the breaking strain of English rope of the late 1800s, became one of New Zealand's primary exports in the early days, and hence the subject of much trade between the Maori and European. Dozens of mills were opened to process the leaves. There are many different variants and each having different properties and use to the Maori. Harakeke was the most used plant of the Maori, and when they discovered that none existed in the U.K., during an early visit - they wanted to go home. The leaves could be scraped with the likes of a sharp shell, and the resulting long fibres left behind used to make rope and bindings. Unstripped, the leaves can be split and woven onto baskets, shoes, clothing, and mats for example. A friend made some shoes and it was found that they were very light weight and easily made. However, the. soles wore out fast - especially when wet and on hard stone. Several pairs would be taken on a journey and repairs made on the way. A lining of moss was sometimes added for additional comfort. It has medicinal properties and its nectar is a favourite of birds such as the Tui and Bell Bird who pollinate flax as do insects and geckos.
Harakeke in sea foam © Steven Reekie
Tui feeding on harakeke nectar © Tim Whittaker
Goldstripe Gecko on flax above and below © Dr Paddy Ryan