New Zealand flax
The science bit
Large rhizomatous, evergreen perennial up to 4.5m tall. Leaves up to 3m long, stiff, acuminate, tough and leathery with a red or orange margin. Reproduces asexually and sexually. Flower stalk (inflorescence) up to 5m tall, usually erect with alternate deciduous papery bracts. Flowers dullish red, six protruding stamens. Fruits three-angled capsules, up to 10cm long. Pollinated by nectar-feeding birds.
- When Captain James Cook, the great navigator, and Joseph Banks, the great botanist, arrived in New Zealand in 1769, they noticed the native Maori people were wearing a fine cloth similar to linen made from this plant. Linen is made from flax, so this plant became known as New Zealand flax.
- This plant is slow-growing and low yielding, and the fibre is more comparable in quality to jute rather than flax in that it is dull, weak and coarse.
- Despite attempts to set up plantations and processing factories in many temperate parts of the world (South Africa, St Helena in the South Atlantic, New Zealand) none has survived. It is the Cinderella of fibres, waiting for a Prince Charming to recognise its potential!
Where it grows
Although native to New Zealand, this plant can be grown anywhere with a similar climate, in full sun and a soil that moisture-retentive but well drained.
- Acuminate: with drip tip.
- Asexual reproduction: reproduction without the sexual process, eg vegetative reproduction.
- Bract: modified or specialised leaf in a flowering structure (inflorescence).
- Capsule: dry fruit that opens by valves, slits or pores to release seeds (dehiscent) and is composed of two or more united carpels (the basic unit of the female sexual organ).
- Deciduous: sheds all leaves annually.
- Perennial: lives for at least two years.
- Rhizomatous: with rhizomes, which are underground, horizontal stems, not roots.
- Stamen: male organ of a flower, including the anther-supporting filament and the pollen-producing anther.