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Harakeke - unique to New Zealand

June 7, 2023

Header Image: A beautiful bangle woven during our summer holiday activity on raranga - Māori weaving

Maybe there were a few chilly winters as use of harakeke (New Zealand flax) developed.The art of weaving grew; a way to pass on culture. Flax trading wove together Māori and Europeans arriving on these shores in the early 19th century.

Each pā or kainga (village) had a ‘pā harakeke’, or flax plantation, and Māori produced beautiful objects ranging from the practical such as food baskets, mats and nets to the treasured and prestigious such as intricately woven cloaks showing status. There are many symbols and meanings hidden within the art; some of these can be seen in the woven tukutuku panels inside Te Whare Rūnanga (Carved Meeting House) here at Waitangi.

Flax also had many medicinal uses. The sticky sap that flax produces was applied to boils and wounds and used for toothache. Flax leaves were used in binding broken bones and matted leaves were used as dressings. Flax root juice was routinely applied to wounds as a disinfectant.

Flax was a valuable resource to Europeans during the 19th century because of its strength; one tall ship needed as much as 40 kms of rope so the demand for flax was huge. It was New Zealand’s biggest export by far until wool and frozen mutton took over later in the century. In 1827 one musket was worth one tonne of flax fibre – a lot of flax to prepare!

There are many Māori whakataukī (proverbs) relating to harakeke that refer to working in unity, such as the one below.

Kotahi te aho ka whati, ki te kāpuia e kore e whati – One strand of flax is easy to break, but many strands together will stand strong.

Did you know New Zealand flax is not a true flax like linen flax, but belongs to the lily family?  The first European traders called it ‘flax’ because its fibres were similar to that of true flax found in other parts of the world.

Read more about Māori use of flax and the flax trade