When northern chiefs learned that harakeke did not grow in England, they were astonished. How was it possible to live without it?
Harakeke will grow almost anywhere in the country, from brackish coastal swamps to dry, windswept hillsides up to nearly 1500 metres in altitude.
It’s not a true flax but a lily, and a close relative of tī kōuka (cabbage tree), which shares many of its properties.
Māori weavers recognised at least 60 distinct varieties, and different cultivars were grown in pā harakeke (plantations) for their strength, softness, colour and fibre content.
Most items of pre-European clothing had harakeke somewhere in their construction: a knee-length flax skirt (piupiu), a rough rain cape (pōkeka) made from flax leaves for travelling, and flax sandals (pāraerae) that were plaited from split harakeke leaves.
Tikanga prevented weavers from eating food while they were working, and children were discouraged from touching or stepping over flax materials.
For finer garments, muka (flax fibres) were separated from the upper surface of the leaf, scraped clean, beaten, washed, dried, bleached in the sun and sometimes dyed.
Woven muka produced a strong, coarse canvas and when it was spun and twisted into ropes and lashings, it was without peer. Cordage varied from the finest lines for fishing and bird snares to plaited ropes strong enough to hold a waka at anchor.
Experiments in England showed ropes made from New Zealand flax were twice as strong as those made from European flax, and a Sydney rope maker declared it was superior to any other fibre he had used.
Early European explorers were astounded at the size of massive, communally owned fishing nets (kaharoa) almost two kilometres long.
All parts of harakeke were used in one way or another. Flax nectar was a prized beverage and sweetener, and a staple food in the south during hard times. Flax roots were roasted over hot stones and beaten into a poultice to treat abscesses and ulcers. Juice from the roots was applied to wounds as a disinfectant and to treat everything from rashes, ringworm and chilblains to toothache.
Pia harakeke (flax gum) was a popular remedy for burns, scalds, old wounds and minor cuts and abrasions. It was used like a sticking plaster to seal a wound from bacterial infection. It could even be used as a glue. A sharp stick and a thread of muka was commonly used to sew up wounds. Leaf strips served as bush bandages, and the thick base of the leaf made an excellent splint when firmly bound around broken bones.