Phormium: Wikis


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New Zealand flax
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Hemerocallidaceae
Genus: Phormium

Phormium cookianum
Phormium tenax

New Zealand flax describes common New Zealand perennial plants Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum, known by the Māori names harakeke and wharariki respectively. They are quite distinct from the Northern Hemisphere plant known as flax (Linum usitatissimum), but the genus was given the common name 'flax' by Anglophone Europeans as it too could be used for its fibres.

New Zealand flax produces long leaf fibres that have played an important role in the culture, history, and economy of New Zealand. Phormium tenax occurs naturally in New Zealand and Norfolk Island, while Phormium cookianum is endemic to New Zealand. Both species have been widely distributed to temperate regions of the world as economic fibre and ornamental plants.[1]

The naturalist Jacques Labillardière collected indigenous flax plants when French ships visited the far north of the North Island of New Zealand in 1793. He had noted the many uses the Māori had put the plant to and in 1803 gave it the scientific name Phormium, meaning "basket" or "wickerwork", and tenax meaning "tenacity" or "holding fast".

Phormium tenax is found mainly in swamps or low lying areas but will grow just about anywhere and is also much propagated in gardens as an evergreen decorative plant, both in New Zealand and now worldwide. Phormium tenax is an herbaceous perennial monocot. Monocot classification has undergone significant revision in the past decade, and recent classification systems (including the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group) have found Phormium tenax to be closely related to daylilies (Hemerocallis). Phormium tenax formerly belonged to the family Agavaceae and many classification systems still place it there.



Phormium tenax flowers have the same curvature as the beak of the nectar eating Tui seen in the photograph.

The tough, sword-shaped leaves grow up to three metres long and up to 125 mm wide. They are usually darkish green but sometimes have coloured edges and central ribs. Cultivated varieties range from light green through pink to deep russet bronze. There are numerous variegated cultivars with leaves marked by contrasting stripes in shades of green, red, bronze, pink and yellow.

The rigid flower stalks can be up to five metres long, projecting high above the foliage. In November (in New Zealand) they produce clumps of curving tube-like flowers which turn bright red when mature. These produce unusually large quantities of nectar to attract all nectar feeding birds such as the tui and insects. The seedpods that develop after pollination, each contain hundreds of seeds which are later widely dispersed by the wind.

Use by Māori

When the Māori came to New Zealand, they brought with them the paper mulberry plant from which they made bark cloth for clothing. The paper mulberry did not flourish and a substitute material was found in the native flax. As Captain Cook wrote: “Of the leaves of these plants, with very little preparation, they (the Māori) make all their common apparel; and of these they make also their strings, lines and cordage …”. They also made baskets, mats, and fishing nets from the undressed flax. The Māori practised advanced weft twining in phormium fibre cloaks.[2]

Plaiting and weaving (raranga) the flax fibres into baskets were but only two of the great variety of uses made of flax by Māori who recognised nearly 60 varieties, and who carefully propagated their own flax nurseries and plantations throughout the land.

Leaves were cut near the base of the plant using a sharp mussel shell or specially shaped rocks, more often than not greenstone (jade, or pounamu). The green fleshy substance of the leaf was stripped off, again using a mussel shell, right through to the fibre which went through several processes of washing, bleaching, fixing, softening, dyeing and drying.

The fibres of various strengths were used to fashion eel traps (hinaki), surprisingly large fishing nets (kupenga) and lines, bird snares, cordage for ropes, baskets (kete), bags, mats, clothing, sandals (paraerae), buckets, food baskets (rourou), and cooking utensils etc.

The flax fibre called muka is laboriously washed, pounded and hand wrung to make soft for the skin. Muka whenu (cords)form the basecloth for intricate kākahu (cloak/garments) such as the kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), a highly prized traditional garment. Cloaks adorned with colourful feathers from the native birds i.e. huia, kiwi, tui, kererū (woodpigeon) and kākā (parrot), will reference the main type used i.e. Kahu Kiwi, Kahu Kākā, etc .

The handmade flax cording and ropes had such great tensile strength that they were used to successfully bind together sections of hollowed out logs to create huge ocean-going canoes (waka). It was also used to make rigging, sails and lengthy anchor warps, and roofs for housing.

Frayed ends of flax leaves were fashioned into torches and lights for use at night. The dried flower stalks, which are extremely light, were bound together with flax twine to make river rafts called mokihi.

Medicinal properties

For centuries, Māori have drawn the abundant nectar from the flowers as a general sweetener. Myriad medicinal uses makes the plant even more important to the everyday health of Māori.

Boiled and crushed harakeke roots are applied externally as a poultice for boils, tumours and abscesses, as well as to varicose ulcers.

Juice from the pounded roots can be generally used as a disinfectant, and taken internally to relieve constipation or expel worms. It has also been applied to bullet or bayonet wounds.

The gum-like sap produced by harakeke contains enzymes that give it blood clotting and antiseptic qualities to help healing processes. Māori are fully aware of its curative properties and that it is a mild anaesthetic, and apply the sap to boils and various wounds, to aching teeth, to rheumatic and associated pains, ringworm and various skin irritations, and scalds and burns.

Splints can be fashioned from korari (flower stalks) and leaves, and fine cords of muka fibre utilise the styptic properties of the gel before being used to stitch wounds. Harakeke leaves make excellent bandages and can secure broken bones much as plaster is used today. The pulp of pounded leaves can also be applied as dressings.

Research into modern medicinal and cosmetic uses is still being carried out in New Zealand.

Oil from New Zealand flax seed was first[citation needed] commercially produced in 1993 by the Waihi Bush organic farm in the South Island.[3] New Zealand flax seed oil has high levels of Omega-3, and provides an alternative to taking fish oil. New oil blends with other ingredients are being researched and produced. Flax seed oil that can be bought in many countries (aka linseed oil) is extracted from the seeds of the European flax, a plant that belongs to a completely different plant family.

Harakeke is a lily.

As a paper fibre

Since colonial times the fibre from phormium tenax has been used for papermaking. Several times the possibility of commercial production has been investigated. Currently it is used by artists and craftsmen producing handmade papers.

Defence uses

During the early Musket Wars and later New Zealand land wars, Māori used large, thickly woven flax mats to cover entrances and lookout holes in their "gunfighter's " fortifications. Some warriors wore coats of heavily-plaited Phormium tenax, which gave defense characteristics similar to a medieval gambeson, even slowing musket balls to be wounding rather than deadly[citation needed].

International trade

In the very early 1800s the quality of rope materials made from New Zealand flax was already widely known internationally, as was the quality of New Zealand trees which were used for spars and masts, and the Royal Navy was one of the very largest customers.

The flax trade burgeoned, especially after male Māori recognised the advantages of trade and adapted to helping in the harvesting and dressing of flax which had previously been done exclusively by females, "Whole tribes sometimes relocated to swamps where flax grew in abundance but where it was decidedly unhealthy to live. The taking of slaves increased - slaves who could be put to work dressing flax..."[4].

However, trading for flintlock muskets led to an arms race between tribes, and the ensuing conflicts known as the "Musket Wars" decimated many tribes.

There was an active industry harvesting and processing flax at Foxton, New Zealand until demand declined due to the depression of the 1930s. There was also research program conducted by John Stuart Yeates at the nearby Massey University (then Massey College).


In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Phormium cultivars available. The 2005-2006 edition of the Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder listed 75 cultivars.


  1. ^ Extraction, content, strength, and extension of Phormium variety fibres prepared for traditional Maori weaving, New Zealand Journal of Botany, 2000, Vol. 38: pg. 469.
  2. ^ John Gillow and Bryan Sentance, World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques, London: Thames & Hudson, 2004, p. 64, 220.
  3. ^ The Waihi Bush Story, Waihi Bush Organic Farm.
  4. ^ A dangerous people whose only occupation is war: Maori and Pakeha in 19th century New Zealand Journal of Pacific History, 1997, Christina A. Thompson

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

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PHORMIUM, or NEW Zealand Flax (also called "New Zealand hemp"), a fibre obtained from the leaves of Phormium tenax (nat. ord. Liliaceae), a native of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands and Norfolk Island. This useful plant is one of the many which were discovered by Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Solander who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage of discovery. The seeds brought home by Banks in 1771 did not succeed, but the plant was introduced by him to the Royal Gardens at Kew in 1789, and was thence liberally distributed in the ground-mass, and these rocks form transitions to the nephelinites (nephelinitoid phonolites) (see Petrology, Plate III. fig. 1); in others it is scarce and the rocks resemble trachytes containing a little nepheline (trachytoid phonolites). The felspathoid minerals, sodalite, haiiyne and nosean, which crystallize in isometric dodecahedra, are very frequent components of the phonolites; their crystals are often corroded or partly dissolved and their outlines may then be very irregular. Small rounded enclosures of glass are often numerous in them. The pyroxenes may be pale green diopside, dark green aegirine-augite, or blackish green aegirine (soda iron pyroxene), and in many cases are complex, the outer portions being aegirine while the centre is diopside. Fine needles of aegirine are often found in the ground-mass. The commonest hornblende is dark brown barkevicite. Biotite and olivine are not really frequent in these rocks, and usually have been affected by resorption. The ordinary accessory minerals of igneous rocks, apatite, in Great Britain and the continent of Europe. It grows luxuriantly in the south of Ireland, where it was introduced in 1798, and also flourishes on the west coast of Scotland, and is generally cultivated as an ornamental garden plant in Europe. It has been introduced for economic purposes into the Azores and California. The name Phormium is from Gr. 40pµ6s, a basket, in allusion to one of the uses made of its leaves by the New Zealanders.

In its native country the plant is generally found near the coast. It has a fleshy rootstock, creeping beneath the surface of the soil and sending up luxuriant tufts of narrow, swordshaped leaves, from 4 to 8 ft. long and from 2 to 4 in. in diameter. The leaves are vertical, and arranged in two rows as in the garden flag; they are very thick, stiff and leathery, dark green above, paler below, with the margin and nerve reddishorange. From the centre of the tuft ultimately arises a tall flower-bearing stem, 5 to 15 ft. high, bearing on its numerous branches a very large number of lurid red or yellow, somewhat tubular flowers, recalling those of an aloe, and from i to 2 in. long. After flowering the plant dies down, but increases by new lateral growths from the rootstock. The plant will grow in almost any soil, but best on light rich soil, by the side of rivers and brooks, where sheltered from the wind.

Phormium has been treated as a cultivated plant in New Zealand, though only to a limited extent; for the supplies of the raw material dependence has been principally placed on the abundance of the wild stocks and on sets planted as hedges and boundaries by the Maoris. Among these people the fibre has always been an article of considerable importance, yielding cloaks, mats, cordage, fishing-lines, &c., its valuable properties having attracted the attention of traders even before colonists settled in the islands. The leaves, for fibre-yielding purposes, come to maturity in about six months, and the habit of the Maoris is to cut them down twice a year, rejecting the outer and leaving the central immature leaves. Phormium is prepared with great care by native methods, only the mature fibres from the under-side of the leaves being taken. These are collected in water, scraped over the edge of a shell to free them from adhering cellular tissue and epidermis, and more than once washed in a running stream, followed by renewed scraping till the desired purity of fibre is attained. This native process is exceedingly wasteful, not more than one-fourth of the leaf-fibre being thereby utilized. But up till 1860 it was only native-prepared phormium that was known in the market, and it was on the material so carefully, but wastefully, selected that the reputation of the fibre was built up. The troubles with the Maoris at that period led the colonists to engage in the industry, and the sudden demand for all available fibres caused soon afterwards by the Civil War in America greatly stimulated their endeavours. Machinery was invented for disintegrating the leaves and freeing the fibre, and at the same time experiments were made with the view of obtaining it by water-retting, and by means of alkaline solutions and other chemical agencies. But the fibre produced by these rapid and economical means was very inferior in quality to the product of Maori handiwork, mainly because weak and undeveloped strands are, by machine preparation, unavoidably intermixed with the perfect fibres, which alone the Maoris select, and so the uniform quality and strength of the material are destroyed. The New Zealand government in 1893 offered a premium of £1750 for a machine which would treat the fibre satisfactorily, and a further £250 for a process of treating the tow; and with a view to creating further interest in the matter a member of a commission of inquiry visited England during 1897. The premium was again issued in 1899. In 1903 it was stated that a German chemist had discovered a method of working and spinning the New Zealand fibre. An idea of the extent of the growth of the fibre may be gathered from the fact that the exports for 1905 amounted to 28,877 bales at a value of nearly £700,000.

Phormium is a cream-coloured fibre with a fine silky gloss, capable of being spun and woven into many of the heavier textures for which flax is used, either alone or in combination with flax. It is, however, principally a cordage fibre, and in tensile strength it is second only to manila hemp; but it does not bear well the alternations of wet and dry to which ship-ropes are subject. The fibre has come into use as a suitable material for binder-twine as used in self-binding reaping machines.

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Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikispecies


Classification System: APG II (down to family level)

Main Page
Cladus: Eukaryota
Regnum: Plantae
Cladus: Angiospermae
Cladus: Monocots
Ordo: Asparagales
Familia: Hemerocallidaceae
Genus: Phormium
Species:P. cookianum - P. tenax


Phormium J. R. et G. Forst., Char. Gen. Pl. 24. 1776.


Chlamydia Banks ex Gaertn., Fruct. Sem. Pl. i. 71. t. 18. 1788.


  • Landcare Research New Zealand Limited. Flora of New Zealand. 2009 Mar 04 [1].


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