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New Zealand Flax: Food, Fibre and medicine

Phormium on the Cornish Coast

I Thought I'd start off my blog by looking at one of my favourites and a highly underrated plant; Phormium tenax, also known as New zealand flax or Harakeke in its homeland of New Zealand.

They're a striking plant with their large clumps of sword shaped leaves and giant flower stalks. They thrive in the UK Climate and require basically no maintenance; making them a favourite of garden designers throughout the country.

I think I've had one growing in the garden of every house I've ever lived in.

I never really paid them any attention or assumed they would be 'useful' other than their ornamental value. I remember when i first started studying horticulture academically Phormiums were one of the first plants we looked at in our ethnobotanical lessons.

Like so many other plants we now see as strictly 'ornamental', Phormiums are an incredibly useful plant. They are used primarily as fibre but also provide food and medicine . While we don't have any historical uses in the UK they were one of the most important and respected plants to New Zealand's indigenous people, The Maori.

I remember being taught the deep respect the Maori had when harvesting the plant and the stories they used to help communicate this message. If you look at the base of the leafs you'll see they grow in little fans. The Maori leave the central shoot (the baby) and the parents either side and only harvest leaves beyond this (the grandparents). This method ensures the plants are not overharvested and also gives you the strongest fibres.

We harvested leaves using this technique and weaved some simple mats and discussed many other uses of the plant. Since then I've done lots of research into the uses of Phormiums. They now serve as a constant reminder to me to look a little deeper at the plants I encounter everyday.

Flowers filled with sweet nectar

Whilst they are mostly used for the incredibly strong leaf fibres they also have some interesting uses as food and medicine. I have quite a sweet tooth and it's not often you find sweetness in the wild apart from the usual fruits. Phormiums start to flower in June and these flowers are filled with a delicious, sweet, edible nectar. The Maori used to collect this nectar in Gourds to use as a sweetener. I've never been organised enough to collect a substantial amount but have enjoyed this nectar many times direct from the flowers whilst humming the bare necessities and doing a little jig.

Phormiums are a distant relative of that wonderful healing plant Aloe Vera and are a member of the Asphodelaceae family (formerly Xanthorrhoeaceae, the name was changed in 2016).

At the base of the leaf the two sides are fused together. This can be split open with a knife to reveal a sticky goo with apparently similar healing properties to Aloe Vera. This gooey substance can be used directly on the skin and is used commercially in some high end skincare products in New Zealand. It was also used in the past by Colonialists in New Zealand as a glue substitute for sealing letters. This goo is also edible; not a great texture but tasteless and I'm sure it could have some novel culinary potential.

Extracting fine 'Muka' fibres from the leaf

The main use of Phormiums though lies in their fibres. Used extensively by the Maori to produce baskets, ropes, shoes, fishing lines, traps, hats and all sorts of other useful items that were essential to indigenous peoples daily lives in the past.

They're one of my favourite plant fibres to work with. Very strong and easy to process.

Basically you take a knife and remove the older grandparent leaves as mentioned previously. Make a diagonal cut away from the centre of the fan to direct water away and prevent the newer leaves catching water and rotting. You then remove the lower portion that is fused together. Fold the two sides of the leaf in half so they lay on top of each other and remove a strip of about a centimetre from each side. This removes the central spine and the edge of the leaf leaving you with two workable strips of fibre. These strips can be weaved into all sorts of objects. They are very useful in the garden and can be used as biodegradable plant ties.

Primitive fishing line using phormium cordage and hawthorn as the hook

Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry research trusts has planted a windbreak of these and uses them in his commercial nursery to eliminate the use of plastic cable ties when staking trees.

You can use the fibres like this as strips or process them further to extract the fine, threadlike fibres known as 'Muka' for creating fishing lines or fine fabrics. Check out videos on youtube showing this process as its a little complicated to explain.

I'm no expert weaver; if you'd like more instructions check out for some detailed instructions and videos

Anyway I hope this has helped people look at Phormiums in a different way and you’ve enjoyed reading. If you have any other uses you know of, comments or feedback please get in touch!

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