Monday, March 31, 2014

#2225 ... Flax

New Zealand Flax is a plant that has played an important part in the cultural and economic history of New Zealand for both the Māori people and the later European settlers. The two native species and their cultivars are also used as garden plants. New Zealand Flax describes the common New Zealand perennial plants Phormium tenax and Phormium colensoi, known by the Māori names harakeke and wharariki respectively. They are quite distinct from the Northern Hemisphere plant known as flax (Linum usitatissimum), but the genus was given the common name 'flax' by Anglophone Europeans as it too could be used for its fibres. Phormium produces long leaf fibres that have played an important role in the culture, history, and economy of New Zealand. P. tenax occurs naturally in New Zealand and Norfolk Island, while P. colensoi is endemic to New Zealand. Both species have been widely distributed to temperate regions of the world as economic fibre and ornamental plants. When the Māori came to New Zealand, they brought with them the paper mulberry plant from which they made bark cloth for clothing. The paper mulberry did not flourish and a substitute material was found in the native flax. As Captain Cook wrote: “Of the leaves of these plants, with very little preparation, they (the Māori) make all their common apparel; and of these they make also their strings, lines and cordage …”. They also made baskets, mats, and fishing nets from the undressed flax. The Māori practised advanced weft twining in phormium fibre cloaks. Plaiting and weaving (raranga) the flax fibres into baskets were but only two of the great variety of uses made of flax by Māori who recognised nearly 60 varieties, and who carefully propagated their own flax nurseries and plantations throughout the land. Leaves were cut near the base of the plant using a sharp mussel shell or specially shaped rocks, more often than not greenstone (jade, or pounamu). The green fleshy substance of the leaf was stripped off, again using a mussel shell, right through to the fibre which went through several processes of washing, bleaching, fixing, softening, dyeing and drying. The flax fibre, called muka, is laboriously washed, pounded and hand wrung to make soft for the skin. The cords (muka whenu) form the base cloth for intricate cloaks or garments (kākahu) such as the highly prized traditional feather cloak (kahu huruhuru). Different type of cloaks, such as Kahu Kiwi and Kahu Kākā, were produced by adorning them with colourful feathers from different native birds, such as kiwi, kākā (parrot), tui, huia and kererū (woodpigeon). Fibres of various strengths were used to fashion eel traps (hinaki), surprisingly large fishing nets (kupenga) and lines, bird snares, cordage for ropes, baskets (kete), bags, mats, clothing, sandals (paraerae), buckets, food baskets (rourou), and cooking utensils etc. The handmade flax cording and ropes had such great tensile strength that they were used to successfully bind together sections of hollowed out logs to create huge ocean-going canoes (waka). With the help of wakas, pre-European Māori deployed seine nets which could be over one thousand metres long. The nets were woven from green flax, with stone weights and light wood or gourd floats, and could require hundreds of men to haul.[5] It was also used to make rigging, sails and lengthy anchor warps, and roofs for housing. Frayed ends of flax leaves were fashioned into torches and lights for use at night. The dried flower stalks, which are extremely light, were bound together with flax twine to make river rafts called mokihi.

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