Harakeke - New Zealand Flax

Harakeke was a key resource for Māori. It is a taonga because of its vast range of uses. It was valued by tohunga for its use in rongoa and muka was produced by the skilled hands of Māori. All parts of the plant were utilised; the blades, the seeds, the kōrari, the leaf base and the gum. When it comes to such a valuable resource, everything was utilised as it was a product of the whenua.

Tikanga is an important part in the use and cultivation of harakeke. Several tikanga surrounding harakeke emphasises the importance of sustainable use and production of the plant. The centre three leaves of the harakeke plant, the rito and mātua, are likened to a whānau. They must be left so that the whānau can persist for further generations. The tūpuna, the older leaves, are harvested and are used for raranga and rongoa. The value of harakeke was portrayed through whakataukī and the people’s connection to nature was shown through these whakataukī:

"Hutia te rito o te harakeke
Kei whea te kōmako e kō?
Kī mai ki ahau;
He aha te mea nui o te Ao?
Māku e kī atu
he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata"

If the heart of harakeke was removed,
Where would the bellbird sing?
If I was asked
What is the most important thing in the world?

I would say
It is people, it is people, it is people.

Harakeke covered several different landscapes and Māori were able to harvest it from numerous locations, in wetlands, hills, valleys and along the coast. The value of harakeke was so great that Māori developed the ability to cultivate harakeke in pā harakeke when naturally growing harakeke was sparse in the rohe they occupied.

When European settlers arrived, they were looking for valuable resources. In New Zealand they found many, most importantly harakeke. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, muka from harakeke had high economic value. Muka was produced on a commercial scale (http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/flax-and-flax-working/4) and was exported to Australia and Britain to be made into rope. However a combination of the introduction of alternative materials, such as nylon, and disease in the crops of harakeke led to the decline of the industry (http://www.techhistory.co.nz/OntheLand/Flax_milling.htm).

Today, harakeke can still be seen growing in the locations that our tupuna harvested from, such as wetlands, hills and valleys. It can also be seen grown as an ornamental in gardens and along road sides. At present, the most well known use of harakeke is for raranga but there has been a revival in its uses and the matauranga that it offers.

Flax and Harakeke seeds and flax oilThere are harakeke products on the market. It is utilised for its renowned medicinal properties, seed oil and gel extracted from harakeke can be found in products such as skincare products, ointments and other supplements (http://www.livingnature.com/harakeke.cfm). The muka is processed and made into flax paper (http://www.pakohe.co.nz/) and pā harakeke are developed and used as a tourist attraction (http://www.paharakeke.co.nz/). The whakapapa of harakeke is important; showing where these products come from and how they are connected to people is an important idea to portray.

To produce healthy harakeke you need to plant them in healthy soil. Soil with a low water table, well drained and highly fertile will produce harakeke with high quality muka, oil and gel. Harakeke is susceptible to ‘yellow leaf disease’ which causes yellowing of the leaves and eventual death of the plant (http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/resources/collections/harakeke). If harakeke were to be produced as a commercial crop then further research would need to be done on the prevention of this disease to ensure crop quality.

Sustainability is an important concept to Māori. We are the kaitiaki of the land so we must protect it and utilise its benefits in a sustainable way so that resources can be left for future generations.

“Toitu te whenua, whatungarongaro te tangata”

The land is permanent, man disappears.

With the growing market for sustainable production of fibres it creates a unique opportunity for Māori to develop their resources as there are no other products on the market like muka, the same goes for harakeke gel and oil, there are no products like these. Muka has the potential to be sold in the same arena as other high quality fibres such as hemp and linen flax. There has also been research done and there is a potential market for harakeke seed oil as a specialty culinary oil as well.