This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, June 2012
Flax is one of the best known of our native plants.
The Maoris differentiated between the two species of flax, calling Phormium tenax, the swamp-growing form, 'harakeke', and Phormium cookianum, the cliff or alpine form, 'whakariki'.
Seeing the practical use Maori made of flax in making fibre for weaving, the pioneering settlers of New Zealand did not take long to utilise the widespread Phormium plants. This reminded them of the plant which supplied fibre to make linen, the small herb Linum usitatissimum with the common names of 'linseed' or 'flax'. Naturally enough they transferred the name to the New Zealand plant which provided a similarly fibrous material. Now in New Zealand we have forgotten the link with Europe and are surprised to be told that the original flax is really a Middle Eastern plant that has been cultivated and woven for 30,000 years. It makes our flax fibre a very recent production.
Phormium tenax is the big 2-3 metre fan-shaped plant with generally erect, strap-like leaves we know best. The smaller 1.5 metre Phormium cookianum has drooping leaves which are not particularly good for providing fibre for weaving. Indeed, Maori selected many forms of flax for the different types of fibre they provided. Many ancient selections have been lost, but in the 1960s-70s Rene Orchiston of Gisborne travelled the country locating remaining selections and creating a collection called "Pa Harakeke" which has been grown and reproduced now in many botanic gardens and plant collections. There are at least 60 different forms, each with its particular trait or quality, reflecting the diverse genetics to be found in a single species throughout the country. This is a good example of why eco-sourcing for all plants is important, allowing us to retain the wide genetic diversity for the future benefits we might derive from them.
The flowers of the two species differ with the yellower ones generally being Phormium cookianum while Phormium tenax tends to have redder flowers, but I have never found this a reliable guide. Much the best identifier can be seen after flowering when the seed pods are displayed on the tall flower spikes called scapes. The scapes can reach over 4 metres in Phormium tenax, but it is the erect, leathery pods splitting into three upright 'fingers' that identify it as Phormium tenax. The seed pods of Phormium cookianum hang down, are papery, thinner and twist into a spiral.
The best kept secret about flax is its wonderful curative properties. Modern herbal ointments are now being produced that make use of this quality and many combinations with extracts from other plants, notably manuka, give a range of remedies. Healing is remarkably rapid after the application of 'flax goo' which is probably anti-bacterial as well. You can easily find the beneficial ingredient by running your finger down the 'V' fold of the leaf to its base. There you will find a gooey substance suitable for direct application onto cuts and grazes. If the goo is too stiff, too dirty, or too runny, try the next leaf as generally the older leaves have very thick dirty goo and the centre leaves have a clear liquid. I find the jelly-like substance in the middle leaves to be best as it reduces bleeding and dries to form a protective coat over a wound. In times of drought it may be that only a small percentage of plants have the stored goo, but I have never failed to find it eventually by checking other plants. Try it with confidence.