Equinoxial winds continue to blow. People can feel besieged by the weather, irritable, restless. Tender spring growth suffers, plants are bruised and battered. But some of the damage is curiously attractive. The long strappy leaves of Phormium (harakeke, New Zealand flax) growing along the waterfront near Te Papa have been stripped by the pummelling of severe gales. Long pale strands of fibre hang from the leaves like a cascade of silver. This fibre, revealed when the fleshy part of the leaves is scraped away, is called muka in Maori.
The muka is strong and flexible. It is the reason for Phormium being called New Zealand flax, even though the plant Linum usitatissimum which is traditionally called flax and used to make linen is very very different - it is an annual with slender stems, pretty blue flowers and little grey-green leaves, and grows about a metre high. The strong fibres come from the stems and it is also the source of linseed oil.
Just to complicate things, we have a native Linum too, Linum monogynum. I have never seen Linum usitatissimum in the flesh, but the similarity is clear from the descriptions. Our Linum is a little delicate looking thing compared to Phormium. As far as I am aware it has not been used as a source of fibre, but confusingly, I have seen it called flax too.
Described as a subshrub or a short-lived herbaceous perennial it grows about half a metre high. The white flowers continue from spring to summer and it seeds a lot - I always have little seedlings popping up to replace the ageing plants. Despite its rather fragile appearance it grows well in poor coastal conditions and can be used in sand dune restoration.
And despite all the battering, this year along the south coast there are so many flowering spikes on the Phormium plants they are looking like a little forest. Impressive!