When I was walking through Cosmeston on Saturday, I was reminded that the plant name Flax can mean very different things to different people. In New Zealand, my homeland, Flax is a hefty plant, with thick leathery sword-shaped leaves that will quickly blunt even the sharpest secateurs and tall flower spikes full of a delicious nectar that is the particular favourite of the beautiful Tui. The traditional Flax species is Phormium tenax, though nowadays there are many cultivars in a wide range of colours and sizes.
The Flax I see when I’m out wandering in the British countryside couldn’t be more different from the Kiwi version. It is Linum usitatissimum, a small delicate plant, with beautiful pale blue flowers. Despite its seemingly insubstantial structure, the fibres of this plant are used to make linen and that is how the New Zealand plant got its name. According to the Eden Project website:
When Captain James Cook, the great navigator, and Joseph Banks, the great botanist, arrived in New Zealand in 1769, they noticed the native Maori people were wearing a fine cloth similar to linen made from this plant [Phormium tenax]. Linen is made from flax, so this plant became known as New Zealand flax.