Alison Ballance visits the National New Zealand Flax Collection at Lincoln where she meets ethno-botanist Sue Scheele and curator Katarina Tawiri to find out more about the harakeke collection.
Find out more in this RNZ programme: National New Zealand Flax Collection.
The origin of the harakeke collection
Harakeke is the name given to native flax by Māori. Europeans named it New Zealand flax due to the similarity of the fibre to European linen flax fibre.
In the 1960s, Renee Orchiston began collecting and growing different cultivars of harakeke, which were important to Māori weavers. That collection was gifted to the then-DSIR Botany Division in the 1980s and now forms the basis of the National New Zealand Flax Collection. The collection includes more than 60 harakeke cultivars and is managed by Landcare Research on its Lincoln campus.
Harakeke fibre characteristics determined by the plant variety
Flax leaves can be plaited or woven to make kete or bags, while the long strong fibres, or muka, can be extracted and used as a yarn for weaving cloaks. Although almost all the cultivars are thought to have originated from two different species, they all have different characteristics. The end use of each harakeke variety is determined by the particular traits of each plant.
The quality of the fibre and ease of extraction vary between cultivars, and some are more desirable for weaving than others. Plants with soft, droopy leaves usually have very little fibre in their leaves. These leaves are not suitable for extracting fibre but they are useful for children and beginners to weave into kete. More upright plants have much stronger fibres that are easier to extract and more suitable for weaving into cloaks. Katarina shows Alison how the fibres are extracted from the leaves using the edge of a mussel shell.
Research measures differences between cultivars grown in different areas
Sue Scheele describes a research project in the 1990s that investigated differences between 12 different varieties of harakeke grown in 10 different sites throughout New Zealand. The mature plants were assessed for qualities such as how easy it was to extract fibre, plant texture and weaving quality. Although each variety grew differently in the different areas, there was little difference found in the fibre quality. The plantations remained after the study as a resource for local weavers.
Taxonomic revision under way
Current research is investigating whether there are more than the two species of harakeke that have currently been identified. The harakeke collection includes plants that have been gathered from offshore islands, and genotyping is being used to prove the species origin of the different plant varieties.
Programme details: Our Changing World
National New Zealand Flax Collection - Find out more about the harakeke collection and the individual cultivars, including images, on the Landcare Research website.