Maori Name: Harakeke
Common Name: Flax
Botanical Name: Phormium tenax
No fibre plant was more important to Maori than Harakeke [flax]. Each village typically had a pa harakeke [flax plantation]. Different varieties were grown for their strength, softness, colour
and muka [fibre content].
The first European traders called it "flax" because its fibres were similar to that of the flax plant found in other parts of the world. It is unique to New Zealand and is one of our oldest plant species.
Harakeke has a distinct appearance. Its long, pointed leaves fan out from the root up to a height of about three metres in some species. The plants have a mass of thick, fleshy roots sprouting from the rhizome which hold the plant firmly in the soil. There are many different varieties of harakeke. All have tall, tree-like flower stems called korari, which grow high above the leaves. From November to January, when they are in bloom, they are a great attraction for birds especially Tui, as they are full of nectar.
- Pre-European Maori used harakeke as their main fibre plant for making many things including: kete, nets, mats, cloaks, sandals, and ropes.
- The leaf or root was pulped, heated and put on boils toothache, wounds, burns, eczema and scalds.
The juice of the root was used to kill intestinal worms, and as a purgative.
- In the mid-nineteenth century, harakeke began to be harvested by European settlers and exported to Australian and English rope manufacturers. Harakeke became a major export industry in the 1800's and early 1900's with hundreds of large flax mills operating over ‘the boom years’. The advent of cheaper synthetics and the 1930’s depression saw the decline of the industry.
- Flax weaving by hand almost died out as Māori became urbanised in the early part of the twentieth century, but there was a resurgence of interest in traditional flax crafts in the latter part of the century.
- More recently there has also been a resurgence of interest in exploring the commercial potential of flax. In recent years the fibre, seeds and gel of harakeke have begun to be researched for their potential use in modern fabrics, food oils, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and as a replacement for fibreglass.
- Traditionally only the older leaves on the outside of the harakeke plant were cut when taking leaves from the plant. It is believed the three inner layers of the plant represented a family. The outer layer represents the grandparents, whereas the inner layer of new shoots or the child remained to be protected by the next inner layer of leaves, the parents.
- The Snaring of the Sun. Maui promised his mother to slow the sun so that the days would be longer and they would have more time to find food. Carrying the enchanted jawbone of his grandmother, Maui and his brothers journeyed eastwards, to the pit from which the sun rises each morning. They waited and as the sun began to emerge from the pit, the brothers leapt out and snared the sun with huge harakeke ropes. As they held it still, Maui beat the sun with the enchanted jawbone, until it was so feeble that it could but only crawl slowly across the sky - and continues so to do to this very day.
- Flax was 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’. W. Colenso, 'Vestiges: reminiscences: memorabilia of works, deeds, and sayings of the ancient Maoris.' Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute XXIV (1891)
The Flax / Harakeke Cabinet draws its inspiration from:
- The action of weaving to open and shut the cabinet.
- The form of the sun being ensnared and restrained by flax ropes.
- The angular long sharp leaves of the flax plant.
- The containment and protection the young leaf (in this case the artwork) within the older outer leaves (the cabinet doors).