High in Natural Fibre

Flax has style. Just look at the swamp flax, harakeke, holding up its glossy swords like regiments of soldiers or the tousled clumps of mountain flax, wharariki, spilling down mountainsides and coastal cliffs.

By Ann Graeme.

Photo: Danica Devery Smith

Photo: Danica Devery Smith

These two flaxes are the only members of the genus Phormium. But though the genus may be exclusive, its species are not snobby. Wharariki and harakeke can be found everywhere, decorating the meanest gullies and the bleakest road cuttings.

They make ideal plants for our gardens (as long as their tough, entangling leaves are kept well away from the lawn mower). They forgive the neglect of the worst gardener and endure life between the traffic lanes to soften our stark motorways. Their natural variability has been used to create the 65 or more cultivars that give form and colour to gardens around the world.

But flaxes are much more than decorative plants.

They are providers. Their curved flowers fit the beaks of tui and bellbirds and the nectar glistening deep in the tube of petals awaits their paint-brush tongues. In spring, tui scamper up and down the flower spikes, their heads orange
with the pollen that they carry from flower to flower.

Long-tongued geckos were just as appreciative and so were Maori.

Maori relied on flax for their everyday needs. They knew and named more than 60 varieties of harakeke and cultivated many for the different qualities of their leaves. They harvested the flax leaves very carefully, always leaving the growing shoots so that each fan would be sustained. The leaf blades were used to make kete or baskets,
decorative tukutuku panels and mats.

The flax leaves were first “retted” (softened in running water) and then the women would use sharp shells to scrape them and remove the fibre. This could be made into ropes, clothes and fishing nets. The dry flower stalks or korari were used for buoyancy and the antiseptic gum from the leaf bases to dress sores and wounds.

When European explorers arrived, they quickly recognised the potential of this new plant. They called it flax, after the linen flax that grew in England and whose fibres could be made into fabric.

When is flax linen and when is flax simply flax?

So the flax industry began, with Maori harvesting it from the vast swamps and selling it to traders for shipment to the mills in Australia. But as land was cleared and drained for farmland, the swamps diminished and so did the source of naturally growing flax.

To take up the slack, flax was planted in the low-lying plains of the Manawatu to supply the rope-making industry at Foxton. At its height, 50 flax mills were operating around the town and the industry thrived during the latter part of the 19th century and the
early decades of the 20th.

But the boom didn’t last.

Outbreaks of yellow leaf disease hit the flax plants and the natural fibres were supplanted by synthetics. The industry dwindled and the last flax at Foxton was harvested in 1973.

Now only the story lingers on in the little museum.

New Zealand flax is a source of fibre but that is its only similarity to linen flax. New Zealand flax is a tough, sinewy perennial plant.

Linen flax is a soft, delicate annual.

It belongs to the Linum family, and the commercial blueflowered species was first cultivated in Egypt 5000 years ago.

Just as Maori selected harakeke for different fibre or weaving qualities, linen flax has been selected for the production of fibre and oil.

Fibre making requires long single-stemmed plants to make fine cloth such as damask, lace or linen. Oil production requires branching plants with many flower heads to produce quantities of seeds, which yield linseed or flax seed oil.

Most linen flax is cultivated in the northern hemisphere, particularly in Russia, Canada, the United States and Argentina but some is grown in the South Island for flax seed oil.

Only one member of the linen flax family is native to New Zealand. It doesn’t have the blue flowers of the commercially grown species.

Our native linen flax is Linum monogynum. It has the trademark white flowers of many native plants. Its petals are designed to lure colour-blind beetles or night-flying moths, not the bees of the Old World.

They have colour vision and so are attracted to the blue-flowered linen flax.

Native linen flax grows on coastal cliffs throughout the country. It would be more common were it not so palatable to rabbits and wandering stock.

It is a beautiful plant with pure white flowers and fine, grey-green foliage and grows
readily from seed.

Watch out for it in December when it makes a brave show along the coastal highway around Kaikoura, growing on the cliffs along with the Marlborough rock daisy.

From mountain to sea New Zealand has two species of flax. Harakeke or New Zealand flax only grows here and on Norfolk Island. Its scientific name is Phormium tenax. Phormium is from the Greek word for basket and acknowledges its use to Maori, and tenax means tough.

Wharariki or mountain flax is endemic. Its scientific name is Phormium cookianum and there are two subspecies, hookeri and cookianum. The subspecies cookianum deserves the name of mountain flax because it grows in the South Island mountains
and in the Tararua Ranges in the North Island.

But the subspecies hookeri grows throughout the North Island from the coast to the mountains and on coastal cliffs in the South Island, so calling it mountain flax is rather confusing.

Wharariki is usually smaller than harakeke and its flowers are more yellow than red, but it is best identified by its dangling, twisted seed heads which are quite different from the upright heads of harakeke.