Few of our native plants are as well-known as flax; both within New Zealand and abroad. It can be easy to be dismissive of plants that are as ubiquitous as our two species of Phormium – which are a common sight in many of our natural and manmade landscapes, including gardens and parks. However, flax has become so widely used for good reason.
Both species are extremely tough; particularly harakeke (Phormium tenax), which thrives in poorly drained ground as well as very dry situations. They have a useful scale; with harakeke reaching between 2.5 and 4m (a height required of many hedges and shelterbelts), whilst wharariki (Phormium cookianum) normally attains a height of between 1.2 and 1.5m – making it a relatively compact plant for long-lived structure within gardens.
A further aspect of the value of flax is shown in the photograph below on the left – its ecological role as food for our native wildlife. Flax is widely known to provide significant amounts of nectar for birds when in flower; especially our ‘honeyeaters’ (tui, bellbirds and stitchbirds). However, other animals make use of the flowers of flax; such as the native bee (from the genus, Leioproctus) that is occupied with garnering pollen from this flowerhead of P. tenax (in early summer).
Although not as conspicuous as the introduced honey bee, New Zealand’s native bees are significant pollinators for our native flora. They are interesting creatures that do not form hives (in the manner of honeybees), but mostly breed solitarily, in tunnels within the ground (often on banks). The orange material that is visible on the bee’s legs is pollen, that it is in the process of collecting.
Flax also holds a cultural value that is founded in the abundance and strength of fibre that it yields. This was initially recognised by Māori, who became very adept at processing the fibre for a variety of uses. Subsequently, early European settlers saw the potential of this fibre, and for a period it represented a substantial export crop. A more comprehensive description of this fascinating history is provided in the profile on Phormium tenax below.
The common name of flax is somewhat of a misnomer, as the true flax (Linum usitatissimum) is actually a diminutive herb from Europe and Asia, that has a long history of use as a textile fibre. Our species of Phormium were named after it, due to the fact that they too deliver a useful fibre.
As the smaller sibling in this genus of two, wharariki is less celebrated than harakeke (the major flax of weaving). However, it is the better species for a great number of situations within gardens, due to its more compact size.
Wharariki has a more weeping form than typical Phormium tenax, and is also distinguished from its close relative by its vibrant light green colour (as opposed to the greyish-green normally exhibited by P. tenax). Aside from the most obvious differences, the seedheads of P. cookianum are a further point of distinction. These are twisted and generally hang from the old flowerheads, as opposed to the stouter, upright capsules borne by P. tenax.
As may be inferred by the common name, mountain flax, this species is associated with higher altitude areas. What is less obvious from that title is that P. cookianum is also a conspicuous feature of our coastlines throughout the country – where it grows almost to the water.
Two sub-species of wharariki are currently recognised. The more widespread of these, P. cookianum ssp. hookeri grows throughout the full extent of wharariki’s range, normally on rocky ground. This is the form that is most likely to be met with in cultivation. The plants that are pictured below, growing en masse on Wellington’s South Coast, conform to this subspecies. This place is a good example of the tolerance of wharariki, as it is consistently assailed by strong salt-laden winds.
The other subspecies, P. cookianum ssp. cookianum is restricted to damper sites in subalpine areas, mostly in the South Island. This differs from P. cookianum ssp. hookeri by its shorter, stouter leaves, and a dark margin that typically lines the edge of the leaves.
The usefulness of a thing (whether it is a plant, a manmade object, or something else) is one of the main factors in establishing its significance to a culture. If we can use it, we tell stories about it and attach meaning to it. This is certainly the case with harakeke, which was held in high regard by Māori for the multitude of uses to which it could be turned (such as woven garments and fishing line, as just two examples).
Many varieties are recognised by Māori, and these have been preserved as distinct forms adapted to different purposes. A wide range has survived to the present time through both continuous use and conscious conservation (by traditional weavers and collectors). The most significant of these in recent times was Rene Orchiston, who gathered together a large collection that constitutes the major contemporary source for weaving varieties.
Although Captain James Cook was relatively dismissive of the quality of flax as a fibre1, Europeans later came to view it as a useful resource. The way in which this transpired, over a long period, is a fascinating story that is interconnected with historical events (both domestic and international). The history provided below is primarily derived from James Hector’s 1889 publication on Phormium tenax2.
Trade existed in flax as early as 1828 (when whalers and traders were the main visitors to our shores). Over the next three decades, demand was almost entirely met by flax processed by Māori; who were of course expert in its preparation. During this time, several efforts were made to mechanise the process, with the aim of making it speedier. However, these roundly failed.
Then, in 1860, as conflict between Māori and the Crown flared up in the Waikato (and other districts that were significant processers of flax), the supply of flax dried up (from an average of around £2500 in the 1850s down to c. £150 in the years from 1860 to 1866). As so often occurs, war stimulated technological development, and renewed efforts were made to mechanise flax processing.
As of 1861, machinery was developed with a focus on beating (what Hector describes as ‘percussion’) and scraping the leaves, rather than the previously attempted mode of crushing the leaves. Interestingly, this new methodology more closely replicates the means by which Māori prepared fibre from flax. When one considers that science is chiefly informed by observation, it paints a dim light on earlier efforts to mechanise production – which perhaps should have paid greater heed to the experts in the field.
This technological advance meant that, as of the latter half of the 1860s, flax became a considerably more important export for New Zealand, reaching a value of £132,578 in 1870. During the 1860s, events offshore also contributed to elevate the economic prospects of flax production, including the American Civil War.
In this time, New Zealand flax became a viable alternative to Manila Hemp as the base material for ‘white rope’; a type of rope that can be submerged in water, and that bears good colour for this purpose. This coincided with decreasing supply of Manila Hemp.
These days, harakeke is chiefly valued for its ornamental and ecological value. It is planted widely in restoration projects, due to its resilient nature and value to wildlife. Its striking form has also found favour with landscape designers and gardeners in other countries, and it is interesting to note the places in which harakeke has appeared within the history of modern landscape design (such as in the works of the important, early modernist designers, Thomas Church and Garrett Eckbo).