Silk Purses

Watching the movie Whale Rider on the tube, I had one of those little shivers you get when Right and Wrong shift too rapidly. In the background of most of the outdoor scenes was that familiar California gas-station plant, New Zealand flax. At first, it looked like another Hollywood blooper—the wrentit song on a Dakota Badlands set, Dustin Hoffman driving over the wrong deck of the Bay Bridge to Berkeley (and miraculously ending up in Santa Barbara). But this was filmed on location& Oh, yeah, New Zealand flax.

Recently I met some women who’d had the same experience in reverse, at the Maori contemporary art exhibit at Moscone Center. The event included a bunch of the artists (including tattoo artists at work, using modern equipment) and they were friendly and willing to talk as they demonstrated their work. I happened into a conversation one weaver was having with a local artist; the Maori woman was describing a limo tour they’d all been taken on, around San Francisco and the East Bay.

“We were going along the waterfront, and we kept seeing all this harakeke growing there, just like home! Surprised us all, it did. It was just so odd—what’s it doing here?”

The artist seemed bewildered, but I could tell her that yes, that’s Phormium tenax—or New Zealand flax—and it does so well here that it’s a really common landscape plant, drought-tolerant and tough. That I have three small, fancy cultivars on my curb strip. (I didn’t admit that I’d killed one once.) In return, she told me about another phormium species they plant just for decoration back home—wharariki, or P. colensoi, has long droopy leaves but makes brittle fiber—and now I want one.

Another weaver was making beaded skirts of harakeke fibers, and showed us how. This seems to be among the simplest of the artists’ processes; I might try it myself with the plants on my curb.

She took a fresh-looking cut leaf, laid it down with the inner side up, and scraped the succulent part of the leaf away at two- or three-inch intervals to leave horizontal bands of leaf connected only by bands of the outer fibers. As the leaves dry out, they roll up into strings of lightweight cylindrical “beads” connected by the fibers. She said she boils her leaves before drying them, but they’ll roll up anyway.

Botanists recognize just the two phormium species, but the Maori classify over 50 cultivars based on color and fiber qualities. Two basic fiber types, whenu (warp strips) and muka (yarn, as I see it), are processed from the plant’s outer leaves for clothing, including gorgeous ceremonial cloaks decorated with feathers, plant fibers, and dyes; and for containers, mats, dishes, cordage (ropes, snares, nets, and fishing lines) and even baby rattles.

Harakeke supports a lot of animal life, too: birds, bats, geckoes, and various insects use the flowers’ nectar (so do humans, as sweetener), and along with more insects, the rare flax snail of northern New Zealand shelters in the leaves. If a local fault gives way and the rest of our continent falls into the ocean, let’s hope we have some Maori ex-pats among us with the know-how to make all those landscape plants useful.

Know-how, and the lack of it, informs one of those bleakly amusing stories from the age of wooden ships, one of the lighter sides of the English colonial history. As Robert Hughes chronicles in The Fatal Shore, Norfolk Island was supposed to help Britain make up for its lost American colony, partly by supplying strategic spar timber and sailcloth from Norfolk Island “pines” and New Zealand “flax.” The “pines” were araucarias, and proved too brittle to use as ships’ masts. The flax, our familiar phormium, makes tough cloth but isn’t processed quite the way classic flax is for linen.

None of the colonizers (mostly convicts) knew how to make cloth from harakeke, so in classic colonizer fashion one of the overseers kidnapped a couple of young Maori men and brought them to the struggling colony. But flax was the province of Maori women, and besides, these guys were nobility. They had no idea how it was done.

After they’d spent six months staring homeward and singing heart-rending songs of exile, the colony’s captain sent them back. The convicts learned enough by trial and error to weave cloth, but only in uselessly small quantities. Norfolk Island never did become Britain’s strategic supply post. If they really wanted help, they should have asked a woman. Politely.

Ron Sullivan, author of The Garden Lover’s Guide: San Francisco Bay Area and blogger at, writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley Daily Planet.

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