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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Phormium tenax Forst., called harakeke by the Maori, and generally known as New Zealand flax, is a monocotyledon. It belongs to the agave family, and is native to New Zealand and Norfolk Island. It is a tall perennial “herb” with rigid leaves 3 to 9 ft long, and 2 to 5 in. wide, which grow in fans. The red or yellow flowers are borne in large panicles on stems up to 15 ft high, and yield nectar which attracts birds. The plant grows abundantly throughout New Zealand in lowland swamps and alluvial soils, from sea level to 4,500 ft. Phormium colensoi is the smaller, yellow-flowered species found on the sea coast, and in the mountains.

Captain Cook and Joseph Banks recorded the presence of flax in New Zealand in 1770, and the first published account of it is in Hawkes-worth's edition of Cook's first voyage. J. R. and G. Forster, botanists on Cook's second voyage in 1772, named the plant Phormium tenax, in allusion to baskets which the Maoris made from the leaves–phormium from the Greek phormos, a basket, and the Latin tenax, strong.


Jeanne Hannington Goulding, Botanist's Assistant, Auckland Museum.

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