Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

When isn’t flax flax?

with 31 comments

Flax Plant by Tasman Sea 5007

Flax isn’t flax in New Zealand, where people traditionally use the term not for a member of the Linaceae (think linen), i.e. flax family, but for the members of a genus of plants in the Xanthorrhoeaceae that the Māori called harakeke and whose fibers they turned into clothing, mats, nets, and various other useful things. By far the most common species of New Zealand flax is Phormium tenax (think tenacious), and not a day of my stay there passed without my seeing it, usually in many places. Partly that’s because of its frequent natural occurrence, and partly because people plant it and various cultivars as ornamentals.

Today’s picture is from the shore of the Tasman Sea—note once again the color of the water—on the west coast of the South Island on February 17th. That was unfortunately much too late for me to see any of the plant’s flowers, but its characteristically upright seed capsules were very much in evidence everywhere I traveled in the country.


Happy vernal equinox about 12 hours from now to those of you north of the Equator, and happy autumnal equinox to those south of that great circle.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 20, 2015 at 5:45 AM

31 Responses

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  1. I caught a few late-flowering ones, but nothing at its best. Lovely to see the birds on it though.


    March 20, 2015 at 6:50 AM

    • I’m afraid that’s an optical illusion, Jude. I see how the shapes and colors of the dried-out seed capsules could let them pass, especially at a distance, as birds. Now you’ve made me wonder if any artists have drawn flax plants at this stage with the seed capsules rendered as actual birds. If not, your imagination has opened up that possibility.

      I’m glad you arrived in time for a few late-flowering flax plants; that’s a few more than I got to see.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2015 at 7:38 AM

      • No, I meant the birds I saw – although now you mention it some of those seed-pods do look like a whole flock of birds 😀


        March 20, 2015 at 7:55 AM

  2. Full of life and light. Gorgeous capture.

    • It was a bright day, and the light reflecting off the wonderfully colored sea made the scene even more vivid. I originally had a different picture of flax in this post. It was pretty good, but as I continued organizing photographs from the trip I came across this one, which I like more because of the sea, sky, and clouds.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2015 at 7:46 AM

  3. Flax leaves are so versatile – for weaving baskets and for making clothes. I had to learn how to make a woman’s skirt with the flax leaves as a child at school, not to mention the basket weaving. Lovely photo.

    Raewyn's Photos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:15 PM

    • At Te Puia in Rotorua we saw some Māori women preparing flax leaves, while at least one other was weaving with the plant’s fibers. It’s great that as a child you learned how to make a skirt from the leaves. Now we expect to see you post a picture of yourself dressed that way.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2015 at 3:39 PM

  4. […] spring, I was reflecting on something special to offer when I read my friend Steve Schwartzman’s new post highlighting New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and a set of commentary conversations between him […]

  5. Fabulous flax! Fell in love with it many years ago, one of the main reasons being that last year’s fallen flower stalks make excellent hiking (and especially wading) staves. It was great fun to follow your conversation with Jude about the birds, and you’ve inspired me to publish a new post that I think will interest you both. I’ve included links to both of your sites in the process.


    March 20, 2015 at 9:16 PM

    • Now there’s a use I never would have considered, probably because I never handled an old and fallen flower stalk and therefore didn’t know it would remain sturdy enough for a hiking stick.

      It’s good that you did get to see (and photograph), and not just imagine, a bird on flax flowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2015 at 7:43 AM

      • Next time you’re there, look for fallen flower stalks and examine one. They are sturdy, hollow, as light as balsa wood, and as easy to saw through to make a clean cut. Though you wouldn’t want to trust your life to one while mountaineering, they provide surprisingly good support for relatively gentle hiking and wading, and with a bit of care, they can serve for many outings. And they’re everywhere, and they’re free!


        March 24, 2015 at 8:15 PM

  6. At first glance I thought I saw birds on the flax, too. I do like the contrast with the sea. Here’s my attempt to capture something similar but not with flax. Not quite to your standard!


    March 21, 2015 at 7:14 AM

  7. I especially like the way the sinuous stalk is echoed in the wavey branches and seed pods. It made me smile to see the waves in the plant’s structure, rather than on the water.

    Here’s something else that tickled me. The first thing that came to mind was a photo I took in Kansas — where I also employed your Technique #3. I suppose we could call the pair One if by land, another one by sea.


    March 22, 2015 at 9:05 AM

    • What a sinuous similarity between your picture and mine. In the New Zealand photograph, while the “waves” are most apparent in the flax’s branches, they were out there in the sea as well, but too far away to be seen.

      Scientists live in a sinuous world and turn to trigonometry to model waves—whether in water, earth, or air—as combinations of sine (hence the word sinuous) curves.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 22, 2015 at 9:52 AM

  8. […] can take your eyes off the rich reds and oranges, note also the slender green leaves on some young flax plants, Phormium tenax, known in Māori as […]

  9. […] first picture includes only two gannets. Mostly you see lots of flax plants, Phormium tenax, surrounding an observation platform jammed with tourists who seemed to be staring […]

  10. […] have been regaled with more of them. Here, for example, is a view from February 22 showing flax plants reflected in one of the South Island’s Mirror Lakes. No upside-down sign […]

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