Struggling Flax Growing in the Planter under the American Flag


Witness Post: Flax


Ramon Anguiano, Rick Younge, and I were wrestling some large flax shrubs from their planters in front of The Gearhart Ocean Inn.  One was huge and root bound, the other was puny and struggling.  I wondered where these gladiator sword-like plants had come from.  Rick warned me that there were lots of different species of flax around the world and that this species was called Phormium.  Apparently this flax variety is native to New Zealand and it is not related to the typical flax that one would find around the Northern Hemisphere from France to India.  Having visited our daughter, Kathleen Hooper, in Dunedin, New Zealand in November, 2012, I remember the plant, but did not know much about it.  We want them to thrive around our property on the North Coast of Oregon.  I would need to know a lot more about the Antipodean flax in order to transplant these shrubs.  Thus I started this research project, which took me back to the land of the Kiwi and the Maori.


Flax in New Zealand


The flax in New Zealand, also known as “Phormium tenax” and New Zealand hemp, is actually a member of the lily family.  The name Phormium comes from the ancient Greek word for “basket,” and the name tenax comes from the Latin for “strong.”  The plants were first identified by the German naturalist, Johann Forster, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his second expedition to the hemisphere.  Cook and company were aboard the ship, Resolution (1772 – 1775), when they collected the perennial species in the Queen Charlotte Sound of New Zealand.  The expedition also collected another genus of Phormium on Norfolk Island and North Island. [1]


flax 1

Phormium tenax in bloom Auckland, New Zealand


As I discovered by standing too closely, the leaves of the Phormium are tough, pointed and sharp, growing up to 10 feet long and 5 inches wide.  Darkish green in color, the leaves are sometimes light green, bronze, pink, yellow and various colors in between.  The flower stalks are rigid and project high above the foliage, growing up to 15 feet tall.  In the spring and summer months the curving, tube-like flowers turn bright red as they mature.  The flowers produce a large quantity of nectar that attracts insects, and tui (a nectar thirsty native bird).  The pollinated seedpods contain hundreds of seeds which are widely dispersed by the strong prevailing winds. [2]


flax and tui

Tui feeding from the Phormium tenax flowers


These remarkably adaptable plants are found mainly in swampy, low lying areas, but will grow just about anywhere.


The Maori Culture


When the native Maori people came to New Zealand, they brought with them the Paper Mulberry, from which they made bark cloth for their clothing.  Unfortunately, the Paper Mulberry failed to flourish in the country, so they substituted the native flax.  As Captain Cook wrote in his journals, “Of the leaves of these plants, with very little preparation, they [the Maori] make all their common apparel; and of these they make also their strings, lines and cordage ….”  They practiced an advanced form of “weft twining,” which helped them weave many of their every-day tools and accessories. The Maori used the flax fibers to fashion their baskets, mats, cooking utensils, fishing nets, sandals and cloaks. [3]



Maori chief (center) wearing a short checked flax & feather cloak and flax skirt


The Maori cultivated the flax plants over the generations and have hybridized 60 different varieties of Phormium.  Using a sharp stone, knife or mussel shell, the leaves are cut at the base of the plant and stripped of the fleshy green substance.  The remaining strands are washed, bleached, fixed, softened, dyed and dried into Muka, or flax fiber.  The Muka is further washed, pounded, and hand wrung, to make it soft to the touch.  The cords form the base cloth for intricate cloaks and garments.  Some are covered with bird feathers (tui, kiwi, and kereru) for ceremonial coats and outer coverings. [4]


The Maori also used the Phormium plant in other ways: the roots contain chemical compounds used in dyes; the leaves contain extracts of gum; and the seeds are rich in linoleic acid, which is an essential fatty acid. [5]


For centuries the Maori have used the nectar from the flax flowers for medicinal purposes and as a general sweetener.  When the roots are boiled and crushed, they can be made into a paste to be applied as a poultice for boils, tumors, ulcers and abscesses. And the gum-like sap has been used to clot blood and as an antiseptic.  The Maori swear by the flax in various remedies for open wounds, tooth aches, rheumatic pains, ring worm, skin irritations, and burns.


Trading in Flax


One interesting footnote is that the rope made from New Zealand flax was heavily prized by the Royal Navy, who became one of the country’s largest customers during the early 19th century.  The flax trade advanced briskly, especially after the Maori recognized the advantages of international trade.  Instead of remaining “women’s work,” the cultivation and dressing of flax became a man’s work as well.  Whole tribes sometimes relocated near the swamps, where the flax grew, which was an unhealthy living area.  The Maori resorted to taking on slaves to harvest and work the flax, which became a burgeoning business until the 1930’s, when, like the rest of the world, the depression changed the economics.  The New Zealand flax industry went into a steady decline, from which it never recovered.  The last flax mill was closed in 1985. [6]




The Hooper Company in Baltimore was in the braiding and twine making business, but those days are long gone in the US as well as in New Zealand.  We no longer see the commercial aspects of the plants in our garden, which is a sign of the times.  We look at plants for their color, height, flowers, and ease of care.


We have replaced the Phormium in the Gearhart Ocean Inn planters with dwarf pines, which are easier to care for and look pretty with holiday lights.  We have moved the Phormium to the Inn at Arch Cape, where, I am happy to report, they are thriving: no root bound pots, no lack of marshy soil or ocean mists.  It seems like the perfect solution to the Flax issues.  Now we know.


the-inn-at-arch-cape Phormium thriving (center left) at The Inn at Arch Cape, Oregon



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