New Zealand flax is one of the country’s most distinctive native plants. It has sword-shaped leaves 1–3 metres long that grow in a fan shape. In spring, birds – particularly tūī – flock to feed on the nectar of its tube-like flowers, which bloom on stems up to 4.5 metres long. By carrying pollen from plant to plant, the birds help flax to produce seeds in long pods.
Species of flax
New Zealand flax is not a true flax like linen flax (Linum usitatissimum), but related to the day lily. It belongs to the Hemerocallidaceae family and the Phormium genus. It grows naturally only in New Zealand and Norfolk Island – no other country has produced a plant quite like it. There are two confirmed species in New Zealand: Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum.
The more common Phormium tenax is also known as harakeke or swamp flax. It has broad, stiff leaves, red flowers and upright, curving seed pods. Phormium tenax grows on lowland swamps throughout New Zealand.
Phormium cookianum, also known as wharariki or mountain flax, grows on coastal cliffs and mountain slopes. It has softer, shorter leaves than Phormium tenax, and greenish flowers, often with yellow or orange tones. The seed pods droop and are twisted.
Although it was once widespread, drainage of swamps and clearing of vegetation meant that by the late 20th century there were only small remnants of New Zealand flax.
As well as growing wild, flax has long been cultivated as a garden plant and a source of fibre. Since the 1990s there have been large-scale flax planting programmes. These help protect the environment (for example, they can stabilise riverbanks), and restore plant biodiversity. Flax can be propagated from seed or by dividing off small fans of leaves and planting them directly in the soil.
Flax and family
Māori have a saying, ‘Kua tupu te pā harakeke’ (the flax plantation is growing). This means that a family is being successfully raised. It is often heard at tangihanga (funeral ceremonies).
In the past Māori selected different types of flax from wild stands for specific purposes. They kept growing their favourite bushes by taking fans from the parent plant. The different cultivars were often given names. The National New Zealand Flax Collection, maintained by Landcare Research, has many examples of these cultivars.
Flax as a symbol
In Māori sayings and songs flax is often a metaphor for family bonds and human relationships. It is also a national emblem, and is used in logos for local and government organisations. Although flax has been exported, it is a plant that many New Zealanders associate strongly with their homeland.