Herb: New Zealand Flax

Latin name: Phormium tenax

Family: Agavaceae (Century-plant Family)

Edible parts of New Zealand Flax:

The roasted seed is used as a coffee substitute. An edible nectar is obtained from the flowers. Very wholesome eating. A long hollow grass-stalk or straw is used to suck it out of the flowers. An edible gum is obtained from the base of the leaves.

Description of the plant:


3 m
(9 3/4 foot)

to July

Habitat of the herb:

Lowland swamps and intermittently flooded land, North South Stewart, Chatham and Auckland Islands.

Other uses of New Zealand Flax:

A very high quality pliable fibre is obtained from the leaves. It is used in the manufacture of ropes (they are not very strong), twine, fine cloth etc. The fibre can also be used for making paper The leaves are harvested in summer, they are scraped to remove the outer skin and are then soaked in water for 2 hours prior to cooking. The fibres are cooked for 24 hours with lye and then beaten in a ball mill for 4 hours. They make a cream paper. The split leaves can be used to make nets, cloaks, sandals, straps etc. They are also used in making paper and basket making. A strip of a leaf is an excellent emergency string substitute for tying up plants in the garden, it can be tied into a knot without breaking. The leaf pulp, after the fibre has been removed, can be fermented to make alcohol. A gum found in the leaves is used as a paper glue. A brown dye is obtained from the flowers, it does not require a mordant. A terra-cotta dye is obtained from the seedpods. A mauve can also be obtained. The flowers are rich in tannin.

Propagation of the herb:

The seed is best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. Sow stored seed in February in a cold frame. Germination is sometimes poor but should take place in 1 - 6 months at 15C. The seedlings are very variable. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for at least their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. The seed remains viable for about 12 months in normal storage. Division in spring as growth commences. Very easy, larger divisions can be planted out direct into their permanent positions. We have found that it is better to pot up the smaller divisions and grow them on in light shade in a cold frame until they are well established before planting them out in late spring or early summer.

Cultivation of New Zealand Flax:

Lowland swamps and intermittently flooded land, North South Stewart, Chatham and Auckland Islands.

Medicinal use of the herb:

None known

Known hazards of Phormium tenax:

None known

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.