Rare flax planted in Waipa

Penney Cameron and her husband Rob planting flax at Lake Ruatuna. Please credit
to Dion Patterson, Department of Conservation.

Thirty-five flax plants have been replanted at Lake Ruatuna as part of a project to establish a nursery for the sought-after weaving material.

The flax, from 11 different varieties, are significant to Māori weavers and have been moved from a private property on the outskirts the Hamilton.

The specimens – ruahine, whareongaonga, wharariki, tūtaewheke, taiore, atarau, wharanui and tukura – were from the collection of weaver Penney Cameron, who had obtained them over several years. Kohunga specimens were also provided by weaver Janaya Christie.

Living Water staff approached Penny Cameron for assistance to develop the pā harakeke – a garden-style selection of flax varieties for use in weaving – at Lake Ruatuna, where several agencies are involved in a long-term ecological restoration.

Lake Ruatuna, near Ōhaupō, is an important site for the Department of Conservation’s Living Water partnership with Fonterra. Several several trials are underway to determine how farmers can implement measures to limit their impact on waterways near their properties.

Dion Patterson, Senior Biodiversity Ranger for Doc, says introducing rare flax varieties to the Lake Ruatuna Living Water project had always been part of the plan after a visit by weavers from Ngāti Apakura.

“A key part of our work at Lake Ruatuna is mātauranga Māori – put simply, ensuring Māori knowledge and culture is reflected at this site – and the craft of weaving and cultivating the materials is a vital part of that,” he says.

Living Water and its partners have spent the last year preparing the site, aware of the cultural significance of moving prized flax species. Work has involved the removal of introduced pest plant species, creation of a walking track, and contouring of the area for the pā harakeke.

Ngāti Apakura representatives and Penney Cameron were present when tehe plates were moved and replanted.

“We were very pleased to reach this milestone. There was some real excitement about this work – everyone involved could sense it was the culmination of a lot of effort, planning and relationship building,” Dion Patterson says.

The flaxes planted are small cuttings – less than 1 metre tall – and will take several years to grow to a size when they can be harvested for weaving or be divided and planted elsewhere to sustain the varieties.

“A key part of our work at Lake Ruatuna is mātauranga Māori – put simply, ensuring Māori knowledge and culture is reflected at this site” — Dion Patterson

“These flaxes aren’t fast-growing varieties,” Dion Patterson says. “And although the wetland is a suitable environment for these flaxes generally, several varieties aren’t widely found in the Waikato.”

Penney Cameron says the flaxes were originally obtained from the National New Zealand Flax Collection – Te Kohinga Harakeke o Aotearoa – at Manaaki Whenua’s Lincoln site.

The varieties were originally from the Renee Orchiston collection, which was compiled over several decades before it was put into the care of Manaaki Whenua.

“It’s great we’ve been able to get some into the soil at Lake Ruatuna,” she says.

One variety, wharanui, has its origins in Te Urewera, and is an uncommon golden colour. It was Tūhoe’s preferred flax for wraps used for keeping babies and young children warm.

“This flax is growing beyond its usual mountain habitat, so it will be particularly interesting to see how it takes to the different conditions at Lake Ruatuna – it’s my favourite, and I’m very keen to see how it goes,” Penney Cameron says.

Ngāti Apakura’s Rama Kete – a highly regarded weaver and tutor who taught at Wintec– was contacted by Manaaki Whenua’s Mahuru Wilcox to contribute advice and guidance.

Rama Kete says one of the major bonuses of the site is it ensures student weavers at Te Wananga o Aotearoa have easy access to a range of resources, all in one location.

“I just looked at it from a weaver’s point of view,” she says. “We’ve ticked a lot of boxes with Lake Ruatuna – there’s heaps of space, the access is easy, and the weavers can obtain their materials at the site and start weaving right there at the campsite.”

Rama Kete says the weavers will need to be patient while they wait for the plants to mature.

Several tree species significant to Māori medicine have also been planted as part of the work.

It is intended to develop an education trail at the site so visitors can learn about the importance of these plant and tree species for matauāranga Māori.

Work at Lake Ruatuna is often undertaken by people serving community sentences with the Department of Corrections, through the Good to Grow partnership with DOC.  Sections of land at the site are owned by Waipa District Council.


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