What can DNA reveal about harakeke and taonga Māori?

What can DNA reveal about harakeke and taonga Māori?

Harakeke, or New Zealand flax, was of vital importance to Māori. It was the most significant source of fibre and had a multitude of uses from making ropes, clothing, mats, and baskets. Like many other museums, we hold a large number of taonga made from harakeke. For many of the older objects there is no information about where they are from. Science researcher Lara Shepherd and Curator Mātauranga Māori Isaac Te Awa teamed up with researchers from Manaaki Whenua to examine the genetic relationships of harakeke, including weaving cultivars. Could this information be used for determining the provenance of taonga Māori made from harakeke?

Māori selected harakeke plants for particular weaving properties, such as colour or strong fibres. These plants were cherished and grown in plantations called harakeke.

Black and white photo of a pā harakeke, 1921.
Pā harakeke, Phormium tenax or Harakeke (flax), 1921, by James McDonald. Te Papa (MU000523/005/0383)

The Rene Orchiston collection

In the 1950s Rene Orchiston of Gisborne recognized that weaving was falling out of popularity and that many of the special weaving cultivars in her area were being lost. Rene started collecting different cultivars to grow on her farm, recording their names and uses.

One of the cultivars in the Rene Orchiston collection is the cultivar Ruawai from the East Coast. It is prized for its high-quality fibres. Photo by Lara Shepherd

Manaaki Whenua later took over stewardship of Rene’s collection and they are now situated at Lincoln but have also been introduced to other sites around the country. Over time, additional cultivars and wild harakeke plants have been incorporated into Manaaki Whenua’s pā harakeke to aid in researching the weaving cultivars.

Several genetic studies have already been undertaken on the Rene Orchiston collection. These studies confirm that some of the same cultivars have been given different names in different areas. Other cultivars with the same name are actually genetically unrelated plants. We sought to test whether more powerful DNA methods that have recently been developed could give us even more information about the histories of these plants.

What does our new DNA study tell us about the whakapapa of harakeke?

Our new genetic data shows that wild harakeke plants growing in different areas around the country are slightly different genetically. For example, we can largely distinguish North Island vs South Island plants, as well as between several regions in the North Island. This result is promising for determining the provenance of museum collection items such as kākahu, kete, ties for pendants, and cordage associated with Toi moko. Determining the origins of harakeke used to make such items would be a step towards reconnecting these taonga to people and place.


Korirangi (cloak), 1820-1900, by unknown maker. Gift of W Leo Buller, 1911. Te Papa (ME002076).
Korirangi (cloak), 1820–1900, by unknown maker. Gift of W Leo Buller, 1911. Te Papa (ME002076). This is an example of a collection item whose origins have been lost.

What are the origins of the weaving cultivars?

The Rene Orchiston cultivars are mostly related to wild plants from the North Island. We were able to confirm that many of the cultivars cluster into genetic groups, despite them having different names. These are likely to be clones of single wild collections or perhaps closely-related individuals from the same wild population or geographic area.

We were only able to include one South Island cultivar in our study. Little is known about its origins. It has a Pākehā name – Goliath – possibly indicating it has a recent origin and is not a traditional variety. Genetically this plant is closest to South Island wild plants rather than any of the North Island wild plants or other weaving cultivars.

The DNA data also indicated that several cultivars appear to be hybrids between harakeke and the related species wharariki.

Harakeke on offshore islands – natural or introduced?

Harakeke also occurs on several offshore islands, such as Raoul Island, Rēkohu Chatham Islands, as well as Australia’s Norfolk Island. For some of these populations it was unclear whether these plants were natural or introduced.

Our results, along with another recent genetic study, show that offshore island harakeke are genetically very similar to plants on mainland New Zealand. This indicates that harakeke likely did not naturally reach these islands but was introduced by Māori, Moriori, or early whalers and sealers.

In some cases, the DNA data also hinted at the origins of these island populations. Norfolk Island plants are genetically similar to Northland harakeke. Raoul Island harakeke appears to be a hybrid between several weaving cultivars from the Bay of Plenty/East Cape region. Rēkohu plants are similar to central New Zealand harakeke.


Shepherd LD, Scheele SM, Te Awa I, Smissen RD. in press. ddRADseq reveals the relationships of harakeke and wharariki (Phormium species, Asphodelaceae) and selected weaving cultivars in Aotearoa New Zealand. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. https://doi.org/10.1093/botlinnean/boac043

Get in touch in the comments below if you would like a copy.


    1. Author

      Kia ora Hiwinui,
      At the moment we are working on developing methods to get DNA from such taonga but we aren’t quite there yet.

  1. I would like a copy ,please.

  2. Love this article. Would like to see more.

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