New Zealand flax, scientifically known as Phormium Tenax, and well known to the Maori as harakeke, was the most useful plant that our ancestors found here, in this pleasant ‘land of the long white cloud.’ Unlike most other plants, every part of it was used for some definite purpose. From the fibres of the leaves, mats and baskets were plaited and garments woven; the gum and rhizome were utilised in medicines; the flowers provided nectar which even young maidens enjoyed; the pollen, it is said, was used as face powder by the young women, and even the stalks had a useful purpose. Could another plant be so useful? The tui relishes its sweet, delicious nectar and the Maori pioneer could not find a better substitute for the tapa cloth from his far distant tropical home.
The climatic conditions in this land were not kind to the paper mulberry tree, of whose bark clothing is made in Central Polynesia. The Maoris tried hard to propagate it, but it would not flourish. Those plants which did grow were stunted, and so few that they were discarded altogether. Flax took its place. Coconut and pandanus leaves from which baskets and mats were made, could not be found in this land by the pioneer. Flax plants, however, solved his plaiting problems. He found, too, that in plaiting flax the old techniques of Hawaiki could be used with very few alterations.
As a child teaches himself to master the hammer, so did the old Maori familiarise himself with the limitations and possibilities of this new material. In making baskets and mats, however, he had one great advantage; he already knew how to plait. All he had to do was to adapt the old technique to the new material.
In other aspects of flax crafts, however, the Maori weaver had to invent, and in due course the inventions became widely known and practised throughout New Zealand.
This article and the ones that follow will give some insight into flax crafts. Before these crafts are described, however, I intend to deal with the flax plant itself; anyone interested in the crafts must first have a thorough knowledge of the plant.
DESCRIPTION OF THE PLANT
The flax plant belongs to the lily family, and this accounts for the similarity in shape between the leaves of the flax and the leek, which is also a member of the lily family. Towering up to ten feet in height, the leaves are sword-like in
shape. That portion of the leaf struck by the sunlight is usually of a glossy green colour, and that part which is not, is of a whitish green. The edge of the blade is always bordered by a thin line of reddish-brown, which is a valuable aid to identifying the numerous varieties of flax. Some leaves are more pointed than others and some are differently coloured, here being two more identification aids. Fibres are not all of the same texture. Flax that grows on hilltops and slopes (Phormium Colensoi) has more brittle and coarser fibres than that growing in swamps. This variation in texture is an important fact to consider, when dealing with plaiting and weaving.
The Roots and Rhizome
The roots are very lengthy, reddish-brown in colour towards the rhizome, and orange nearer the ends. Fairly smooth in structure, the main roots have numerous small depressions on the outer skin, and when squeezed feel spongy to the touch. The rootlets running off do not conform to a set pattern, but appear more or less alternately around the root. The rhizome from which the renowned harakeke medicine is made is covered with myriads of tiny hair roots which attach themselves very securely to the surrounding soil. To cut the rhizome into pieces one has to use an axe or saw, as it consists of a hard, stringy wood-like material.
The Phomium Tenax blossoms from November to January, and the flowers are dull red or yellow in colour. Sometimes—about December —the dull red changes to a beautiful, bright blood-red. The korari, or stalk, at this time of the year is of a purplish colour and the flower spikes appear on alternate sides of it. From January onwards the flower begins to lose its petals, and gives way to a banana-like seed-box, which contains the tiny black seeds. This seed-box is at first a lustrous purple in colour, but later becomes a deep, shiny black, which in turn changes to brown. At the base of the flower is the sweet nectar, which attracts the nectar-eating birds such as the tui and the bell-bird, and in this way the plant is cross-fertilised.
The flax plant grows abundantly in swampy areas and on the banks of running streams, where it is at its best. Those growing on hillsides are a different variety, and were hardly ever used for plaiting and weaving.
According to some authorities the old Maori experts recognised 15 varieties of flax. Of these, the most superior leaves, whose fibres were used for fashioning the korowai and aronui cloaks, belonged to the varieties known as oue, tihore, rukutia, huruhika and huhiroa.
To find the oue plant look for a leaf which is narrow, deep green in colour, and with the edge and keel coloured like the karaka. The huhiroa has a bluish-green leaf, bordered by a black or deep brown line, and which tapers gradually to a point. Tihore, Rukutia and Huruhika appear to be different names for the oue.
A variety easily recognisable is the Parekoretawa which is a variegated plant, with bright green leaves striped lengthwise with a sulphur colour. Other than being a valued ornament, this type had no use at all.
The flax medicine was the Maori counter part for our present Epsom salts. It was a laxative guaranteed to produce results—sometimes very violent results!
To prepare it, obtain a rhizome, preferably from a flax plant growing on fairly dry ground. Clean and cut off all the roots and root-hairs attached to it. Now with an axe cut the rhizome into small pieces, and boil in half a quart of water. Let it boil until the water assumes a reddish-brown colour. Strain the liquid through gauze or some other suitable strainer, to remove all insoluble material, and allow to cool. Pour this into a suitable bottle and it is now ready for use.
One tablespoon is sufficient for adults, while children should be given only a teaspoonful, unless no results are obtained. If too much is taken the results are so violent that a binding agent must be taken to stop it. The antidote for this state of affairs is to rush off to the nearest manuka patch, and secure a handful of manuka seed-boxes—the hard, ball-shaped boxes left on the plant after the flower disappears. Crush these as much as possible and then eat them. Manuka seeds, for their medicinal function, are just as efficient and reliable as flax medicine is for its peculiar purpose.
An alternative method of preparing flax medicine is to place the rhizome into hot embers, and cook it like a kumara. When cooled eat a portion of it, and the results, I believe, are the same as for the liquid preparation. How much one should eat of the cooked rhizome I do not know. Anyone keen on assisting humanity might like to test it and work out the exact prescription!
To the taste, the flax medicine is extremely bitter, but whether it is worse than Epsom salts is a matter to be debated.
Flax gum, found at the butts of young leaves, also had some useful purpose. The gum proved to be an excellent cure for minor cuts, scratches and cracked hands. When smeared over the
USES OF THE KORARI OR STALK
During the old days there were various uses for the stalks. At present there appears to be no use made of them, except of course to make toys such as aeroplanes and windmills.
Looking back over my own young days I can still picture clearly roaming about the swamps, with gangs of four to six, seeking out the dry flax stalks from which to make our toy monoplanes. On such occasions we would sometimes wage war against another gang, using as weapons the flax stalks as substitutes for spears, and these were so light that they did not hurt you. Another common weapon for these sham battles was the rito harakeke, the very young shoot found generally in the heart of the flax bush.
The midrib of the rito was pulled off to about four inches from the cut end, and this piece was held in the left hand. To fire the weapon the piece in the left hand was very quickly pulled right off with the right hand, thus causing the rito to shoot through the air and strike, with luck, some unsuspecting ‘baddy’ in the eye! It was a very effective dart.
In the days of yore the korari was regarded as a rakau (stick) of much importance. It was clothed with a mysterious mana, for it was said the Patupaiarehe (or fairy folk) made their canoes of it. This might have been due to the Maoris' poetic way of explaining something he could not understand, like the buoyancy of the korari when floating in the rippling water of the lagoons. So light was it that it floated like a cork, and consequently responded to the least disturbance in the water; thus the association, in all probability, with the strange fairy folk.
The uses of the korari were these:
Elementary taiaha drill
At a young age all boys were put through an elementary course of taiaha drill by the experts. Dry flax stalks were used, being light and easily manipulated by the boys. Each boy was given a stalk which was slightly longer than his own height, and with it practised taiaha parries and thrusts, the mastery of which was important and vital if he wished to remain alive in his manhood.
Rama or torch
The stalks were cut into equal lengths and bundled. Each bundle was smeared with oil or fat, and then lit. Such torches were used on very dark nights when eeling.
Bundles of stalks were attached together to make rafts for crossing a river. Rough boats, called moihi, were also built of these.