Food and medicine
After Māori arrived in New Zealand, from around 1250, they discovered the useful properties of flax. The nectar from its flowers made a sweet drink. The roots could be crushed to make poultices for skin infections, and to produce a juice with disinfectant and laxative properties. The gum from the base of the leaves eased pain and healed wounds, especially burns. The leaves themselves could be used as bandages and to secure broken bones.
At first, Māori women used flax in the same way they had used the pandanus plant in Polynesia – weaving baskets, containers and mats from the leaves. They then learned to obtain the strong fibre (muka) from the leaves by scraping the green flesh away with a sharp shell. The muka was pounded until soft, then washed and sometimes dyed. Twisted, plaited and woven, it was used to create a wide range of items, such as fishing nets and traps, footwear, cords and ropes.
Can’t live without it
Flax became so crucial for Māori that when 19th-century missionary William Colenso told chiefs that it did not grow in England, they would reply ‘How is it possible to live there without it?’ and ‘I would not dwell in such a land as that’. 1
The first Māori arrivals had found that their tapa cloth garments, made from the aute plant (paper mulberry), were too thin. In any case the aute did not thrive in New Zealand. Muka could be woven (often with feathers and dog skin) into warm clothing – vital in New Zealand’s cooler climate.
Types of flax
Various types (cultivars) of flax were seen as having specific uses by different iwi (tribes). For instance, the cultivar ‘Māeneene’ was used by the Ngāi Tūhoe people of Urewera to weave fine patterned mats. Ngāti Porou sought the ‘Tākirikau’ cultivar for making piupiu (kilts). The ‘Kōhunga’ cultivar produced muka that Ngāti Maniapoto used for their finest cloaks. Whanganui tribes chose the ‘Ate’ cultivar for making eel nets and kete (baskets).
Special flax plants were tended in a plantation (pā harakeke) and there were traditions about when and how they could be harvested. The plant was seen as a family. The central shoot or rito was the baby and the leaves on either side of it the awhi rito or mātua (its parents). Only the leaves on the outside – the tūpuna, or grandparents – were cut, to avoid weakening the plant.
A lasting tradition
Flax was not just useful – it was a way of passing on culture. Through the patterns in woven articles, stories were told and beliefs affirmed. Although European clothing replaced flax garments, weaving as an art survived. After its revival in the later 20th century, less well-known flax types were grown once more. Between 1994 and 2002, a trial was carried out to see how the weaving qualities of flax cultivars change when they are grown at different locations. It was conducted by Landcare Research and the national association of Māori weavers, Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa. They found that the flax that is best for weaving is grown in fertile, well-watered soils with good drainage.