Flax, close up of flowers, Korapuki
Island, Mercury Islands
We all recognise the tall, green, sword-like leaves that can be found growing throughout New Zealand as flax.
Harakeke was the name given to this plant by Maori. The first European traders called it "flax" because its fibres were similar to that of true flax found in other parts of the world. Though we still call it flax today, harakeke is really a lily. It is unique to New Zealand and is one of our oldest plant species.
Life on a flax bush
Flax bushes will often support a large community of animals, providing shelter and an extensive food resource. Tui, bellbirds, saddlebacks, short tailed bats, geckos and several types of insects enjoy nectar from the flax flower. Flax snails, a rare land snail living only in the Far North, often shelter under flax bushes. These snails don’t eat any part of the flax, instead they munch on fallen leaves from native broadleaf trees. Many fascinating insects will go through their complete lifecycle on a flax plant without causing any harm to this plant.
Traditional uses of flax
Flax in flower
No fibre plant was more important to Maori than flax. Each pa or marae typically had a pa harakeke or flax plantation. Different varieties were specially grown for their strength, softness, colour and fibre content. Traditionally when harakeke leaves were removed from the plant, only the older leaves on the outside were taken. It is believed the three inner layers of the plant represented a family. This outer layer represented the grandparents, whereas the inner layer of new shoots or the child remained to be protected by the next inner layer of leaves, the parents.
The uses of the flax fibre were numerous and varied. Clothing, mats, plates to eat off, baskets, ropes, bird snares, lashings, fishing lines and nets were all made from flax. Babies were even given rattles made from flax.
Other parts of the plant were also used. Floats or rafts were made out of bundles of dried flower stalks (kokari). The abundant nectar from flax flowers was used to sweeten food and beverages.
Flax also had many medicinal uses. 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. Today, flax is used in soaps, hand crèmes, shampoos and a range of other cosmetics. Flax seed oil can also be found for sale. There have even been experiments to make flax into wine!
The New Zealand flax family
There are two identified species of flax in New Zealand. Common flax is found throughout the country. It grows up to three metres high and its flower stalks can reach up to four metres. It has seedpods that stand upright from the stems. The other type is mountain flax and is found both at altitude and along exposed coastlines. It never grows as large as common flax, rarely reaching more than 1.6 metres. Its seedpods hang down.
Within each species, there are numerous different varieties of flax. Some have drooping, floppy leaves while others grow as stiff and upright as spears. Flax flowers can vary in colour from yellow to red to orange.
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