Harakeke is a greatly revered plant by Māori people so much so that It is likened to a family with the centre shoot (the rito) protected by the awhi rito (the leaves either side) which are left when gathering.
Only the more mature leaves are taken for weaving. This ensures the health of the plant. Gathering and preparing harakeke for weaving is covered in more depth in the 5 Day Māori Weaving Experience, the next course after this one.
There are two species of NZ flax - Phormium tenax which has stiff leaves, upright stalks with red flowers (pictured left) and Phormium cookianum (known as Whaariki by Māori featuring soft leaves and yellow flowers). There are also a range of ornamental flax varieties with red, cream or lime coloured leaves. The plant is called Harakeke by most iwi Māori and Korari by some. It grows throughout Aotearoa New Zealand where it is commonly known as 'flax'.NZ flax is not the same as the northern hemisphere variety of flax called Linum usitatissimum.
Pictured: The best harakeke for weaving can often be found in home gardens where it is protected from the elements by surrounding fences and buildings.
Uses of Harakeke
The primary use of NZ flax is as a weaving material used to make a range of items including kete (baskets), whaariki (floor mats) and kākahu (clothing). Pictured: Kete whiri woven Dara Barton and photographed by Soraya McConachy Te Ara Encyclopedia of Aotearoa NZ notes that botanists Johann and Georg Forster who voyaged with Captain Cook in 1772 named NZ Flax Phormium tenax for it's useful qualities - 'phormum' is dervied from the Greek word for basket, while 'tenax' is Latin for strong. The plant also contains medicinal properties and is used for rongoa - traditional Māori healing practices.
Harakeke was so abundant and useful that it was made into rope, used in the sailing industry, and traded by Māori. A thriving flax industry developed in Aotearoa New Zealand with flax mills common place until around the mid 1900s.
Depending on what you are weaving, some varieties are better than others for different purposes. For more in depth information visit Te Ara and Landcare Research.
Pictured: Whenu (weaving strips) prepared from Harakeke (Phormium tenax) commonly known as NZ Flax which is one of the most widely used materials for Māori weaving throughout Aotearoa NZ.
Where Harakeke grows
Harakeke grows prolifically throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. It can be found in gardens, local parks and reserves, in swamps, along coastlines and highways. Harakeke can also be found in many other parts of the world.
Students learning to weave harakeke with Veranoa have reported spotting plants growing in supermarket car parks in the United Kingdom to playgrounds in the USA.
Veranoa has found NZ flax on her travels in the USA, Scotland, Australia and the Netherlands and far flung places like St Helena Island (pictured above)
Pictured: Harakeke (NZ Flax) covers the hills of the second most remote island in the world, St Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Pictured: Veranoa gathering harakeke at the Botannic Gardens in Leiden, Netherlands where NZ Flax is grown in deep containers on wheels so the plants can be rolled inside in the winter months Flax grows well in warm, moist, sheltered conditions. It can be grown from seed but can take several years to grow to a mature plant.
Interested to learn more about Māori weaving? Check out the details of The Māori Weaving Experience with Veranoa Hetet free course