Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let's Talk About Flax

Let's talk about flax.  This summer, we harvested and transplanted approximately 600 flax plants into the valley where we work.  What is flax, and why do we spend so much time working with it?

New Zealand flax is actually a member of the lily family (although parts of the plant can be used for making fiber, like European flax).  Flax has extremely long, sword-shaped, stiff leaves.  These leaves grow in a fan shape, and one plant growing from one root system can send out 8, 12, or even more fans.

This is New Zealand flax, complete with flower stalks with seeds.

In the spring, the flowers of the flax are an important source of nectar for birds, as they are too deep for bees.  In fact, the flowers of the flax plant curve at the same angle as the beaks of the tui birds!  In the summer, the flax sets its seeds, which are also an important food source for birds.  It's also a great shelter for birds, snails, and other insects.  (Remember, NZ does not have native land mammals, so birds are an extremely important part of the ecosystem here.)  Flax roots do a great job of penetrating very hard soils full of clay; their roots also do a great job stabilizing erosion-prone soil.

Flax has been used for many purposes by traditional Maori society.  Known as harakeke in Maori, flax fiber has been used to make clothing, ropes, canoe lashings--even baby rattles!  Nearly every part of the flax plant also has medicinal uses.  The leaves and flower stalks are used to stabilize and treat broken bones and other wounds.  A juice made from flax root is also a great disinfectant.

In this little video, Dave talks about flax and why it's important in New Zealand ecology.


Harvesting flax is a very dirty, very tiring job.  We work in pairs; one person uses a spade to dig around the fan of flax leaves and to separate the roots of the fan from the rest of the plant, while the other person grasps the fan by the outer leaves and tugs and pulls until it comes free.  We aim to harvest 200 plants every time we go into the field; this week, it took us only 2.5 hours to gather 181 plants (practice does help!).

If we're not going to replant immediately, we dump the flax in the river so it doesn't dry out.  Then we have to pull all of it out of the river and throw it back on the trailer.  (We usually make Dave do that part.)  Planting is simple--yank out the grass, dig a hole, pop in a plant, tap down the soil, use the grass as mulch around the bare soil.  Planting in wetlands is muddy and sloppy; once you get past the dirtiness, it's actually fun.

Here's a series of portraits from our last time harvesting flax:

...complete with lucky spade!  Yeah, we're having fun!

To get the flax from the bush to the trailer, we set up a fire line and toss each plant from person to person:

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from planting.  Imagine a spade and lots of dirt and you'll get the picture.

Yeah flax!

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