1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Phormium

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PHORMIUM, or New Zealand Flax (also called “ New Zealand hemp ”), a fibre obtained from the leaves of Phormium tenax (nat. ord. Liliaceae), a native of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands and Norfolk Island. This useful plant is one of the many which were discovered by Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Solander who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage of discovery. The seeds brought home by Banks in 1771 did not succeed, but the plant was introduced by him to the Royal Gardens at Kew in 1789, and was thence liberally distributed in Great Britain and the continent of Europe. It grows luxuriantly in the south of Ireland, where it was introduced in 1798, and also flourishes on the west coast of Scotland, and is generally cultivated as an ornamental garden plant in Europe. It has been introduced for economic purposes into the Azores and California. The name Phormium is from Gr. φορμός, a basket, in allusion to one of the uses made of its leaves by the New Zealanders.

In its native country the plant is generally found near the coast. It has a fleshy rootstock, creeping beneath the surface of the soil and sending up luxuriant tufts of narrow, sword-shaped leaves, from 4 to 8 ft. long and from 2 to 4 in. in diameter. The leaves are vertical, and arranged in two rows as in the garden flag; they are very thick, stiff and leathery, dark green above, paler below, with the margin and nerve reddish orange. From the centre of the tuft ultimately arises a tall flower-bearing stem, 5 to 15 ft. high, bearing on its numerous branches a very large number of lurid red or yellow, somewhat tubular flowers, recalling those of an aloe, and from 1 to 2 in. long. After lowering the plant dies down, but increases by new lateral growths from the rootstock. The plant will grow in almost any soil, but best on light rich soil, by the side of rivers and brooks, where sheltered from the wind.

Phormium has been treated as a cultivated plant in New Zealand, though only to a limited extent; for the supplies of the raw material dependenoe has been principally placed on the abundance of the wild stocks and on sets planted as hedges and boundaries by the Maoris. Among these people the fibre has always been an article of considerable importance, yielding cloaks, mats, cordage, fishing-lines, &c., its valuable properties having attracted the attention of traders even before colonists settled in the islands. The leaves, for fibre-yielding purposes, come to maturity in about six months, and the habit of the Maoris is to cut them down twice a year, rejecting the outer and leaving the central immature leaves. Phormium is prepared with great care by native methods, only the mature fibres from the under-side of the leaves being taken. These are collected in water, scraped over the edge of a shell to free them from adhering cellular tissue and epidermis, and more than once washed in a running stream, followed by renewed scraping till the desired purity of fibre is attained. This native process is exceedingly wasteful, not more than one-fourth of the leaf-fibre being thereby utilized. But up till 1860 it was only native-prepared phormium that was known in the market, and it was on the material so carefully, but wastefully, selected that the reputation of the fibre was built up. The troubles with the Maoris at that period led the colonists to engage in the industry, and the sudden demand for all available fibres caused soon afterwards by the Civil War in America greatly stimulated their endeavours. Machinery was invented for disintegrating the leaves and freeing the fibre, and at the same time experiments were made with the view of obtaining it by water-retting, and by means of alkaline solutions and other chemical agencies. But the fibre produced by these rapid and economical means was very inferior in quality to the product of Maori handiwork, mainly because weak and undeveloped strands are, by machine preparation, unavoidably intermixed with the perfect fibres, which alone the Maoris select, and so the uniform quality and strength of the material are destroyed. The New Zealand government in 1893 offered a premium of £1750 for a machine which would treat the fibre satisfactorily, and a further £250 for a process of treating the tow; and with a view to creating further interest in the matter a member of a commission of inquiry visited England during 1897. The premium was again issued in 1899. In 1903 it was stated that a German chemist had discovered a method of working and spinning the New Zealand fibre. An idea of the extent of the growth of the fibre may be gathered from the fact that the exports for 1905 amounted to 28,877 bales at a value of nearly £700,000.

Phormium is a cream-coloured fibre with a line silky gloss, capable of being spun and woven into many of the heavier textures for which flax is used, either alone or in combination with flax. It is, however, principally a cordage fibre, and in tensile strength it is second only to manila hemp; but it does not bear well the alternations of wet and dry to which ship-ropes are subject. The fibre has come into use as a suitable material for binder-twine as used in self-binding reaping machines.