BOTANICAL NAME: Phormium tenax
ORIGIN: New Zealand and Norfolk Island
DESCRIPTION: This clumping, evergreen, perennial plant has sword-like leaves to two metres long, and grows to sixteen metres. It will grow in most soil types, is relatively frost tolerant and moderately drought tolerant once established. Cultivars come in a wide range of colours.
Unlike the plant commonly known as flax in Australia (Linum usitatissium or linseed), New Zealand flax is more closely related to day lily. It can be grown successfully in most of Australia, except for the arid interior.
New Zealand flax can be used as a low windbreak; an exclusion barrier or shelter for rabbits; nesting material for chooks, or as a nesting area and shelter from predators; pollinator attractant; fibre for simple weaving or cordage (see below); and cut flowers.
1. As food
The roasted seed can be used as a coffee substitute. The edible flower nectar can be gathered by using a straw to suck it out. An edible gum can be obtained from the base of the leaves. The leaf pulp can be fermented to make alcohol, though the final product is an acquired taste.
2. As medicine
The gel-like gum is marketed as a skin hydrator, soother and coolant. The gum can be applied to wounds, to treat burns and scalds, and is traditionally used to treat dysentery, constipation and toothache. The stiff leaf bases also make excellent temporary splints for broken bones.
3. As fibre
A high quality, pliable fibre obtained frovm the leaves can be used to make rope, twine and cloth. The fibre can also be used for making paper.
A simple and compostable garden tie can be made by cutting a leaf at its base, and tearing thin strips along its length; these strips can be tied in knots without breaking. The split leaves can be used to weave many temporary or long-lasting items, such as baskets, sunhats, nets, cloaks, mats, sandals, straps and fish traps. Simply weave the lengths into the desired shape, bending the ends 180Æ and weaving back through to secure. Whole leaves can be woven tight into flat mats, or as weed-mat under mulch.
A brown dye, that does not require mordant, can be obtained from the flowers; and a terracotta dye from the seedpods. The gum and the seeds can be used for soap making, and the gum as paper glue. Dried leaves make good fire-starting tinder.
Propagate from mature seed collected in autumn. No pre-treatment is required before planting, although germination can be poor and slow (one–six months). Alternatively, propagate easily by division in spring (new growth commences every three–four years).
The leaves contain cucurbitacins – also found naturally in cucurbits such as pumpkins and zucchinis – which are poisonous to some people. These are being researched for their potential antioxidant and cancer-killing properties.