Harakeke - Phormium tenax

Uses Of The Harakeke Seeds

The seeds were used medicinally by Maori but precise uses do not seem to have been recorded.

The seed oil is high in linoleic acid. A deficiency of linoleic acid can cause skin problems (see Pharmacology below).

Uses Of The Harakeke Gum

The gum is applied externally to burns, wounds, blisters, sores and ringworm.

The reddish gum from a leaf cut at the base is mixed with water and taken internally as treatment for diarrhoea, dysentery and menstrual problems.

Laxative Properties

The compound Anthraquinone, which has strong laxative properties, has been isolated from the rhizomes of the ngaro variety of New Zealand flax 1.

This compound also occurs in the roots of the mountain flax, Phormium cookianum 1.

Essential Fatty Acids: The seed oil is rich in linoleic acid, one of the essential fatty acids 2.

A deficiency in linoleic acid could cause skin problems.

Antibacterial and Anticancer Properties: Cucurbitacins, compounds which have antibacterial and anticancer properties, have been isolated from the leaves of Phormium tenax 3.

Antifungal Properties: An antifungal compound, musizin, has been isolated from the roots of Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum 3.

Uses of Harakeke leaves

Among the many uses of the leaves the following uses have been recorded.

  • The leaves are beaten to a pulp and applied hot to skin abscesses
  • Flax fibre is used as a bandage to halt the flow of blood from a wound
  • The base of the leaf is placed over wounds to stop bleeding
  • The umbilical cord of a newborn baby is tied with flax leaf
  • The juice of the leaves is applied to the skin for rheumatism and sciatica
  • Leaves can be placed inside socks to treat blistered heels
  • The fibre is used in the care of babies. Flax fibre is also tied tightly to an infant's knees to give the child straight legs
  • Flax gel can be used for a variety of skin complaints, including eczema. It is said to reduce itching and to promote healing
General Comments

To Maori Harakeke is one of the most important and most versatile plants. It is one of the few native plants of economic importance. Its fibre was/is widely used for weaving.

Flax is also used medicinally for a huge range of conditions. Some interesting facts:

  • The gel which oozes from the freshly-cut stems has similar healing properties to Aloe vera
  • Taken internally flax is used by herbalists as a substitute for sarsaparilla (made from roots of Smilax)
  • Flax is known as an antidote to the poison of the katipo spider and tutu berry
  • The leaves, rhizome, roots, gum and seeds are all used medicinally
  • A drop of juice from the leaves was used in toothache, applied directly to the affected tooth
  • Harakeke is also referred to as Swamp Flax and the New Zealand Flax Plant

harakeke or Phormium tenax

Pharmacology References

  1. Brooker, S. G. Cambie, R, Cooper, R. C. New Zealand Medicinal Plants, Heinemannn, Auckland 1987
  2. Morice, Isabel M. "Seed Fats of the New Zealand Agavaceae". J. Sci. Food Agric. 13: 666-69, 1962.
  3. Harvey, Helen E., Waring, Juliet M. "Antifungal and Other Compounds Isolated from the Roots of New Zealand Flax Plants (the Genus Phormium)". Journal of Natural Products, July-August 1987; 50(4): 767-776. General References Jones, Phillipa. "Weave the Wind: the Other Face of Flax". New Zealand Growing Today, August 2000; 14(8): 18-23. McGeorge, Pamela. "A New Zealand Icon" New Zealand Gardener, June 1997; 53(6): 30-3.