In mid-November I was looking at several local flax plants, wondering if they would flower this year as there was no sign of the flower stalks emerging. A week later the transformation was remarkable, with strong shoots emerging from amongst the leaves to be followed shortly after by them breaking into flower at the tip by month’s end.Few New Zealanders would fail to recognise it, but few appreciate just what a remarkable plant our native Harakeke is! Find out more about its economic, cultural and environmental importance on the Te Ara website, the DOC website, the Royal Society on NZ website and the Trees for Survival website.
Flax, Harakeke to the Maori, is also known by its botanical name Phormium tenax and can be found growing almost submerged in water, on dry sand dunes or on the bush edge.
Go for a walk and look out for flax – have a look at the flowers and you may even see tui and other native birds feeding!
But flowering is not the only interesting feature of this plant. Take a look at the base of the leaves and note how they arise fan-shaped from the base of the plant. plants will grow vigorously from one of these fans if carefully separated from the plant. Check out the colour of the leaves too – they are usually blue-grey (glaucous) or dark green and the margins can be pigmented black, dark red, pink, yellow or cream.
Another interesting feature is that there are two caterpillars which feed on flax leaves – the Flax Notch and Flax Looper caterpillars. They eat the leaves differently – one leaving notches and the other windows. Can you think why these caterpillars leave these different marks? Some of the investigations in the next section may help you to answer this.
You may not be aware but ‘Yellow-leaf’ is one of the most serious diseases of harakeke (similar to the ‘sudden decline’ in cabbage trees). The disease is characterised by abnormal yellowing of the leaves resulting in stunting of young leaves and die off of the roots. This is a good reason why this native plant needs protecting.
> Using flax as a teaching resource
Here are some links to resources using flax
* The Southland Community Nursery has produced a wonderful resource called Who Did That? which uses flax and other plants to allow children to be a Nature Detective. This resource introduces two animals commonly found on flax – the Flax Notch caterpillar (see here for more images) and the Flax Looper caterpillar (see here fore more images)
* There is a Ministry of Education Unit Plan for Year 10 Level 5 Science which includes an investigation of Flax Notch and Flax Looper caterpillars.
> Fun with Flax: 50 Projects for Beginners
This is a Penguin book by Mick Pendergrast with 50 interesting and entertaining projects designed to teach beginners the basic skills of the Māori craft of plaiting.
> Become a volunteer
Have a look at these websites and see if you might be able to do some volunteer work over the holidays.
There are many other opportunities – ring your local Council for information about future planting days.
> For the technotypes
Identifying New Zealand’s unique native flora is set to become much easier with the launch of Flora Finder, a smart phone app developed by the University of Otago and MEA Mobile. >> Read more
> Make a submission on the proposed amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater management 2011
Go to http://www.mfe.govt.nz/issues/water/freshwater/nps-freshwater-management-amendment-proposals.html to read more.
> Read about the NZ River Awards
Go to http://nzriverawards.org.nz/
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