What is Harakeke?

Harakeke (New Zealand flax, or Phormium tenax) is the plant at the heart of Māori weaving. Read an overview of its cultivation, symbolism, and harvesting.

Cultivating Harakeke

Māori cherished harakeke and cultivated plants in special plantations, called pā harakeke. 

They grew many varieties for specific purposes – to produce clothing, fishing nets, bindings, baskets, and mats, and also to use in medicine. 

To make kākaku (cloaks), weavers extracted and processed the inner fibre of harakeke, called muka. They used this to weave the base. They also used strips of the whole leaf – to create the thatch-like protective surface of pākē (rain capes) and to adorn other styles of cloak. 

Symbolism - The Harakeke Family

For Māori, the fan-shaped harakeke plant represents a whānau (family). This symbolism reflects the importance of the plant in Māori life.

  • The rito, or inner shoot, is likened to a child and is never removed. A family must protect its offspring if it is to survive.
  • The awhi rito, or protectors of the rito, stand on each side. They are seen as mātua (parents). Like the rito, they are never harvested.
  • Only the outer leaves, likened to extended family members, are harvested.

Harvesting Harakeke

Māori maintained many tikanga (protocols) to nurture harakeke. The protocols differed by iwi (tribe), but some, like those below, were commonly followed.

  • Weavers say a karakia (prayer) before cutting the first blade of harakeke.
  • They always cut on the diagonal, away from the plant’s heart and from top to bottom. This helps rainwater drain away and prevents the heart from being flooded and dying.
  • Harvesting is not permitted at night or in rain.
  • No food can be taken into the pā harakeke.
  • Customarily, pregnant or menstruating women do not harvest or weave, as they are in a tapu (sacred) state.