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Ko wai koe e Harakeke? (Who are you Harakeke?)


Ko wai koe e Harakeke? (Who are you Harakeke?)


Harakeke; Phormimum Tenax. A wonderful plant used by tangata whenua for many generations for many different purposes. The silky white fibres that are extracted from the leaves were coveted by many, and brought one of the initial group of settlers to Aotearoa. Suprisingly New Zealand Flax, as it is commonly referred to, isn’t closely related to the traditional Flax plant found mostly in Europe. They are completely different families within the plant kingdom. So what is Harakeke? Actually, who is Harakeke?


After Tāne Mahuta climbed up and retrieved ngā Kete o te Wānanga (the Baskets of Knowledge), he sought a female entity to create us; Tangata Whenua. One of his mana wāhine was Pākoki (sometimes known as Pākoti), and together they had a child; Harakeke. This illustrates the taonga nature of this species. Like many of our other endemic species here in Aotearoa, Harakeke has a shared whakapapa with Tangata Whenua and is one of the many reasons that we have such a special relationship with this plant.

Harakeke is a member of the Asphodelaceae family in the plant kingdom, which means it is actually more closely related to plants like Aloe or even Hemerocallis; the Daylily. In Aotearoa we have two types of Phormium. Phomimum Cookium (or Colensio); Wharariki (commonly known as mountain flax) is a smaller bush. Easily identifiable in comparison to tenax, as it presents as a lot smaller, and tends to have more droopy rau- leaves. Named after William Colensio, a Christian Botanist Coloniser, who is responsible for the Latin classification of many of our taonga species. Wharariki is not useful in traditional raranga. The low muka (fibre) content makes the rau weak and unsuitable for many weaving projects. In comparison, Phormimum Tenax; Harakeke, is extremely strong, and versatile. Within Te Ao Māori, Kairaranga can differentiate between at least 60 different subspecies of Harakeke from all around the motu. Master Kairaranga, understand the unique differences with these different subspecies, and how to best utilize them to create another taonga, and preserve the mana of the plant.


The relationship between a Kairaranga and Harakeke is deep and meaningful. The further on your raranga haerenga (weaving journey) you travel, the deeper the connection and understanding becomes. Tapahi, the harvesting/ pruning of Harakeke is a crucial element withing this relationship. Tikanga literally means the tika (right or correct) way of doing something, and usually has an extremely practical background. Ngā Tikanga o te Tapahi, (the Rules of Harvesting), preserve the mana and mauri of the Harakeke . The rau (blades) that are cut, are perhaps the most important part. When you look at the base of a Harakeke bush, you will see that the grow in clusters, that look like fans. These are the different whānau within the Harakeke. The central three blades of each whānau, do not get cut. The Rito or Pēpi (the baby) or central blade, still needs protection from their Mātua (parents), the blades directly on each side of it, while it is still growing. The Tīpuna (Grandparents or Elders) after that are able to be harvested as their tamariki have grown up. They should be cut at a sharp angle that will prevent rain from entering the base of the plant. Even amounts are taken from each side and any dead material removed. This process allows for the Harakeke to breath, and concentrate it’s energy on the Pēpi in the whanau. The rest of the tikanga is simple. Don’t harvest in the rain or at night. If you are pregnant or on your period, rest, don’t harvest. When a whānau is flowering, don’t harvest as the Harakeke is putting all its energy into growing its flowers to reproduce. A thorough and correct Tapahi, takes time. It allows for the Kairaranga to spend time to awhi and manaaki the plant. The connection and understanding for it as a material gives each piece created a whakapapa of it’s own, and demonstrates the beauty of Harakeke.


So with all that in mind how can I answer the question; who is Harakeke? Harakeke is our whanaunga (relative), a Rangatira (chief), our hoa (friend) and taonga. But most importantly, they are not Flax, so let’s call them by their proper name; Harakeke.

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