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New Zealand Plants and their Story

The New Zealand Flax

The New Zealand Flax.

Still more common than the tree just dealt with, and equally well known to all, is the New Zealand flax. This is another misnomer, as popular names usually are, since the species in question is no flax at all, but another member of the lily family, consequently a near relative of the cabbage-tree, the true native flax being a pretty white-flowered herb (Linum monogynum) common along the sea-coast. Although still extremely abundant, the flax has much diminished in numbers since the advent of the European, for the simple reason that it occupied the very ground most suitable for agriculture. Where the golden grain waves in the breeze, and where the lamb, unconscious of its doom, crops the lush grass, were formerly vast swamps, closely filled with the gigantic sword-like leaves of the plant, beneath whose friendly shelter countless red-legged pukeko sought their food, safe from their dreaded enemy the hawk.

The genus Phormium, to which the New Zealand flax belongs, is found only in Norfolk Island and New Zealand, and consists of but two species, P. tenax and P. Cookianum, this latter formerly known as P. Colensoi. These are readily distinguished by their "pods," those of the former species pointing upwards and not twisted, while the latter's droop downwards and are twisted. Further research may page 143perhaps show that these species are made up of a large number of varieties which produce themselves "true" from seed.

New Zealand flax grows in most diverse stations, and the structure of its leaves probably varies much according to environment. Faces of dry cliffs, clayey hillsides, swamps, and sandhills are some distinct spots where P. tenax flourishes. Nor is it fastidious as to climate. The warm valleys of northern Auckland, the wind-swept shores of south Westland, the bleak moorlands near Invercargill, the quaking bogs of the Chatham Islands, all afford it a suitable home. This Chatham Island form is distinct from the typical variety, its leaves being thinner, broader, and drooping, and its fibre comparatively weak, but very fine. There is also a small amount of flax on the Auckland and Campbell Islands; but it is not indigenous, having been planted there by the Maori sealers many years ago.

The flowers of the flax are not very showy, being of a Iurid red in P. tenax and yellow in P. Cookianum. The pollen is usually ripe before the stigma of the same flower is ready to receive it, a fact which points to cross-fertilisation as a possible cause of the great variation of the species. The abundance of honey contained in the flowers attracts the tui and other native birds, who assist in the work of fertilisation, playing the part performed in many plants by insects.

The leaves spring from a short but stout creeping stem, and this latter, spreading over the ground, helps to increase the spread of the plant. It grows readily from seed also; and from the seedlings, if raised in a sufficient quantity, new varieties might be expected.

The leaves are stout and thick, and stand erect, thus avoiding the direct rays of the sun—a contrivance against loss of water, as shown before. That a swamp plant should require protection against drought seems absurd, but this special drought-combating structure it is which permits the plant to inhabit rocks, dunes, and other excessively dry stations mentioned above. Nor does it seem unlikely that the flax has been driven into the swamps by its competitors, and lives there not from choice, but from necessity, though its drought-resisting structure is no longer an advantage, unless the water of the swamp be acid.*

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The harakeke, as the Maoris call the flax, was their most important plant, for on it their supply of clothing almost entirely depended. Dress mats of great variety were made from its fibre at an infinite expenditure of patience and labour. Some of these were dyed various colours, and were provided with elaborate borders. It also played its part in the Maori pharmacopoeia, being prepared in various ways for external application chiefly. From the dry flower-stalks, the korari, the Morioris of the Chathams built their fragile canoes.

Like the cabbage-tree, the flax is an admirable garden plant, and there are a number of very distinct varieties. Of these the principal are various variegated forms belonging to both species. Some, if not absolutely "true" to seed, certainly yield a large percentage of variegated plants; others, again, will put forth green leaves, and finally revert to the type, as did an especially fine specimen the author collected a number of years ago on the flanks of Mount Sherwood, in southern Marlborough. There is also a showy purple-leaved variety, especially striking when young, and a pleasing form with rather bronzy drooping leaves, marked with a dark line on the margin. Beyond the borders of New Zealand the flax is cultivated for ornament in all civilised lands.

The Maoris, too, cultivated the plant to some extent, and gave names to the different varieties. Hector's work, published in 1872, enumerates no fewer than fifty-six. But doubtless many of these are identical, while it is probable that the same name was used by different tribes for distinct varieties; consequently, the Maori names are of little moment. Yet it must be noted that some of the Maori varieties contain a much better class of fibre than that of the average swamp plant.

Botanically, Phormium tenax is a most variable plant. The colour of the leaf-margin and midrib, the length of leaf-butt, its interior colour and gum-content, the stiffness of leaf, the breadth of leaf, the form and colour of flower, and the shape, size, and direction of growth of the pod— all these and other characters differ in different individuals. Indeed, it needs a close examination of any specimen and a long experience with flax - variation before one is able to select different varieties from the heterogeneous mass of a phormium swamp.

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Phormium tenax, although an indigenous plant, is not immune from "pests" of various kinds, some of which are vegetable and some animal. Circular black spots formed by a microscopic fungus (Cladios-porium) cause not only the premature death of the leaf, but also render the fibre discoloured for milling purposes. Leaf-spot is a worse disease still, red discolorations being formed on the surface of the blade. Perhaps the worst enemy of the plant, and certainly of the flax-miller, is an indigenous slug which eats out patches on the under-surface of the leaf. Strange to say, according to the researches of T. W. Kirk and A. H. Cockayne, "these gouged-out portions of the leaves are frequently attacked by a fungus (Rhizopus nigricans), but this fungus never seems to attack healthy plants." The leaf-margin is the point of attack of various caterpillars, who cause jagged wounds.

* See remarks on physiological dryness in Chapters V and VII.