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Last updated by Joy Kitt


Harakeke is a very important plant that the Maori people use in a varierty of ways to furnish their lives and clothe their bodies.  Their use of the plants is guided by lore, legend and protocols.  I think it would very interesting to investigate the science behind the stories. 

Interestingly I found a document written in 1908 on the Royal Society website.  It is quite hard to read as the language in it and the attitude to traditional knowledge is seriously un-PC but it is this very different attitude which underlines how far we have come in acknowledging the inportance of traditonal knowledge and could also push us along to improve further. It should be remembered that when the British first arrived in NZ at the end of the 18th century they needed a lot of support to survive from the Maori who understood the climate, growing conditions and which plants and animlas were good to eat.  Likewise the value of the harakeke (dubbed flax by the British) as a fibre was soon recognised and they began harvesting and exporting the fibre to England to be woven into linen.

There are a number of investigations based on comparing, sorting and classifying that you could undertake.  Find out about the uses of harakeke in the weaving process - different plants had differnt uses. The Rene Orchiston Collection was created to have examples of plants with different qualities all together. Now if you and your class collect as many samples of harakeke as you can and test them for muka, drying, colour, and so you can explore these qualities and group your samples.  Can you find a local expert to help you?  Your museum may have contacts or members of staff with the expertise you need,  does your local marae have someone who could come and share their knowledge with the children?

Some of the lore is about actually caring for the plants themselves as they grow.  Find out how you should cut the leaves, which ones, when?  Think about why that was important for the plant, for the leaves harvested?  How do these ideas about 'pruning' and 'composting' match up with our modern, western ideas? 

It is also interesting to consider that the Maori told stories to reinforce how to care for and use this important plant.  It might be interesting to think about the stories we tell in these modern times to help guide us to take care (Stranger Danger? Halloween reminds us of witches and goblins lurking in the dark, what can your class think of?)  Sometimes stories have more power than signs and warnings to keep us out of bogs, rips, cliffs and forests.  Is this why the maori describe the different layers of leaves as a whanau - so that it makes more sense and deters people  from cutting the tiny baby leaves and thereby actually damaging the strength of the valuable plant?