December in the forest with Chris Horne and Barbara Mitcalfe
Phormium tenax, Harakeke, Flax
After Captain Cooks first voyage botanists named harakeke, Phormium, from the Greek word for basket, referring to its Māori use, and tenax, meaning tough. Both species are endemic to New Zealand. The leaves of both species grow in the form of a fan, from the centre of which grows the flowering stem, (kōrari). The lower surfaces of the leaves are fused together.
Harakeke is swamp flax, often seen in dense stands such as Taupo Mire west of SH1, north of Plimmerton, and on intermittently flooded land. e.g. as low river terraces. It occurs in the North, South, Stewart, Chatham and Auckland islands. Harakeke leaves are 1 3 m by 5 12 cm, stiffly erect for most of their length. The stem is 5 6 m tall, with dull red flowers followed by erect, plump, three-sided, shiny brown seed capsules that are usually less than 10 cm long by 2 cm wide.
Phormium cookianum, wharariki, mountain flax
Wharariki is the flax we see in many habitats from coastal cliffs to mountain slopes, in the North, South and Stewart islands. Look for it on cliffs on the Wellington coastline, and above the bushline in the Tararua Range. Wharariki leaves are usually less than 2 m long, and inclined to droop. The stem is up to 2 m tall, with mainly greenish flowers often with tones of orange or yellow. These are followed by green, dangling, twisted, seed capsules usually more than 10 cm long, and almost circular in cross-section.
Plant identification is not always straightforward. If you see a flax plant whose description appears to be a mixture of the measurements and other characteristics of the two species described above, perhaps you are looking at a hybrid between them.
All parts of harakeke were used by Māori it was critically important to them for clothing, cordage, and medicinal (rongoa) purposes. They named more than sixty forms of harakeke, according to leaf shape, colour and quality of the muka (fibre). The leaf blades are used for making kete (baskets), mats and for the woven patterns in tukutuku panels. The muka, extracted from the inside of the leaves by scraping off their green covering, then dried, is used to make strong ropes, fishing nets and clothing. Rene Orchiston collected many of these varieties of flax from the wild, and grew them at her property near Gisborne. A selection of these was propagated and planted in the grounds of Victoria University, and in the Botanic Garden.
The area around Foxton used to be the centre of a thriving flax industry. By 1830, flax fibre was being shipped to Britain, and for many decades the industry produced twine, rope and fibre for wool bales, but the advent of yellow-leaf disease, and alternative fibres such as jute led to the end of the industry.
The orange gum from the leaf bases was used as an antiseptic wound dressing. There were many other (rongoa) uses. The buoyant, dried stems were used for flotation.
We trampers can use strips of the leaves of either flax species as a substitute for string or rope, perhaps to repair a boot which is falling apart, or even to make a tourniquet. The bases of the leaves can be used as splints. Tūī, korimako and starlings seek flax nectar, getting the yellow pollen on their heads, then transferring it to other flowers. Check the next flax flower you see if there is no insect inside, suck the flower to sample the sweet nectar, if the birds have left you any.