1836 - Murray, John. An Account of the Phormium Tenax, or New Zealand Flax - AN ACCOUNT... p 8-24

E N Z B       
       Home   |  Browse  |  Search  |  Variant Spellings  |  Links  |  EPUB Downloads
Feedback  |  Conditions of Use      
  1836 - Murray, John. An Account of the Phormium Tenax, or New Zealand Flax - AN ACCOUNT... p 8-24
Previous section | Next section      


[Image of page 8]


THE plant represented in the figure was first, if I mistake not, noticed as a native of New-Zealand, by that enterprising circumnavigator, Captain James Cook, R.N., F.R.S., in a letter to Mr. Walker, of Whitby, dated 13th September, 1771; and he thus incidentally alludes to it. "The country produceth a grass plant like flags, of the nature of Hemp or Flax, but superior in quality to either; of this the natives make clothing, lines, nets, &c.

The Phormium tenax, or New-Zealand flax, has, since that period, been more particularly examined and described by Rutherford, Bennet, and others. The generic name of Phormium is derived from the Greek φορμοσ, a basket descriptive of the use to which it is sometimes applied by the natives; while its specific appellative seems to be characteristic of the tenacity of the fibre. There are two kinds of this plant, and they certainly appear to be sufficiently marked to merit the recognition of different species. In one of these species, the flowers are smaller and their aggregations more numerous than in the other. In the one, moreover, the colour of the flower is yellow, while in the other it is deep red.

Captain Cook observes that the Phormium tenax grows everywhere near the sea in the vicinity of Queen Charlotte Sound, in the south of the Island, and in some places to a considerable height in the hills, in branches or tufts with sedge-like leaves, and bearing on a long stalk, yellowish flowers, followed by roundish pods, filled with very thin plates, or shining black seeds. Mr. Nicholas saw it in the northern parts of the Island, flourishing equally luxuriantly in the most exposed as in the more sheltered places, and growing from five to seven feet high. Seven varieties have been found in New-Zealand: one variety is remarkable, for the extreme facility

[Image of page 9]

[Page 9 is an inserted blank page in the copy digitised]

[Image of page 10]

with which the enticle is separated, and another kind found in more southern parts is distinguished for its softness and silky lustre.

It does not appear that this plant is exclusively confined to New-Zealand, since it was subsequently discovered wild, in considerable tufts, along the cliffs of Norfolk-Isle, within the influence of the sea-spray, by Captain Cook, in his second voyage to the southern hemisphere.

According to Mr. George Bennet, F.L.S. it is called by the natives Koradi, and seems to be indigenous to the soil of New-Zealand; it is there considered sacred, and from a remark made by Captain Cook, appears to have been used, on one occasion, at least as the symbol of peace and amity. Though it has been reported as found in moist and marshy soil, Mr. Bennet has seen it growing on the sides of the hills. Agreeable to a letter now before me, "The Phormium tenax flourishes best in low marshy situations, although it will grow on the high rocky soils. It appears to be a very hardy plant, and capable of being cultivated in almost any soil, but certainly a low marshy situation brings it to its greatest magnitude."

The Phormium tenax succeeds very well with me in Scotland in a light sandy soil, exposed to the sea breeze;--peculiarities, which seem to verify the circumstances under which it has been reported to occur in Norfolk-Isle; and it is sometimes met with in New-Zealand, on the slopes of the mountains; where it may reasonably be supposed, the soil is more coarse and friable, than in the plains.

In general appearance the Phormium tenax somewhat resembles. the flag or 'seg' of our meadows and marshes, the Iris pseudacorus 1 of botanists; it is, however, taller and more luxuriant, and the foliage altogether of a more erect and graceful port. The leaves are glossy, and of a beautiful green colour, being varnished on their superior surface. The proper period of maturity is indicated by a slit or rent at the tip of each leaf. According to Mr. Bennet, the leaves of the plant, in its native clime, attain a length of from five to seven feet, and the flower-stalk rises four or five feet above

[Image of page 11]

them, bearing a profusion of flowers, succeeded by triangular seed-vessels. A packet of the seed from New-Zealand was some time ago presented to me, and I distributed parcels of it for cultivation to several persons. I am not informed of the success which had followed their attempts to rear it, but the friend from whom I obtained it, writes me that he has seen some fine plants in the gardens at Powis Castle, raised from this seed by Lord Clive's gardener. 2 The seeds were first forced in the hot-house, and afterwards transferred to the open ground. The seed of the Phormium tenax is intensely black and shining; winged, and so thin, as to seem little more than a mere lamina or plate; or membraneous expansion.

Captain Cook, in his letter to Commodore Wilson, dated 22d June, 1776, says, "I am sorry I cannot furnish you with some New-Zealand flax seed, having not one grain left. Indeed I brought hardly one home with me, but left the most of what I had at the Cape, to try to cultivate it there; for of all that was brought home, in my former voyage, I have not heard of a single grain vegetating. It is much to be feared that this fine plant will NEVER BE REARED IN ENGLAND! Strange things, however, have come to pass in our days, and what would this intrepid navigator have said now, when the Phormium tenax is even successfully reared in Scotland, unsheltered by wall or 'bield,' braving the rigorous clime, and sustaining the sea breeze of North Britain; and flourishing as luxuriantly as at 'Norfolk-Isle,' his own discovery in another hemisphere. The time, however, is at length come, when a description of this fine plant is printed on paper manufactured from its leaves, promising a papyraceous material more permanent in its duration than any other. The pious missionary has already erected a printing-press in New-Zealand; and, hereafter, paper made from a native plant may be the means of facilitating the dispersion of the blessings of Revelation among the people in the multiplication of transcripts of the sacred volume, in their own tongue, printed on their natal soil.

Hitherto the Phormium tenax has been almost exclusively the imprisoned inmate of the green-house or conservatory; though I have seen specimens that have been fully exposed both in England and Ireland; at Powis Castle and at Wentworth House, it has

[Image of page 12]

hitherto been reared under glass. When in Dublin, some years ago, I was informed that a plant of New-Zealand flax fell a victim to the brumal blast in the Royal Botanic Garden there, though protected by the fostering shelter of a wall. It may, however, be reasonably doubted whether such a site was a judicious one; as vegetation is thereby rendered more susceptible. Walls may shelter from winds, but afford no security whatever against the influence of radiation, and the nursling of the wall perishes, a victim of the abrupt transition from reflected adventitious beat, to the chilling effects arising from evaporation and radiation. On the west coast of Scotland, I have successfully cultivated the Phormium tenax, along the verge of the sea, and the plants have already withstood the ordeal of seven winters, without the slightest protection whatever. I am not aware that it has been cultivated in the open ground in Scotland by any other individual. It is reared in the Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and there is a plant of it in Dr. Neill's garden at Canonmills, near the Scottish metropolis, but I believe all in the hothouses. I presented to the natural history section of the "British Association for the Promotion of Science," assembled at Edinburgh, in September, 1834, specimens of the leaves of these plants nearly SEVEN feet long, and more than four inches in their greatest diameter. 3 Two of my plants were each nearly four yards in circumference. The icy breath of winter seems to make no impression on them; indeed the Phormium tenax appears to be singularly tenaceous of life, and susceptible of resisting opposite extremes of temperature. Some years ago, an extensive conflagration in the Jardin des plantes, at Paris, destroyed several conservatories, and their botanical inmates. Among these exotics, there was a plant of Phormium tenax which shared the common fate, and seemed reduced to a mass of charcoal; yet from these ashes, a new plant, like a vegetable Phoenix, arose, and now lives and flourishes.

The Phormium tenax has rarely flowered in this country even in the greenhouse, but specimens of its inflorescence exist in the Hortus Siccus of that accomplished botanist, Sir William Jackson Hooker,

[Image of page 13]

L.L.D., the distinguished Regius Professor of botany in the University of Glasgow; and I believe they were obtained from Liverpool. The plant also flowered in the greenhouse of J. Boultbee, Esquire, of Springfield Knowle, near Birmingham, in June, 1832. Mr. Alton, of the Royal Gardens at Kew, sent a plant of the Phormium tenax to the Jardin des plantes, in the year 1800. In 1812, it flowered sub die in the department of the Drome, in France; but produced no seed; it has, however, not only flowered, but ripened seed at Cherbourg; and the unsheltered plant has sustained, uninjured, the cold of several successive winters in the vicinity of Paris. When cultivated for use, the leaves are, of course, cut down and gathered, and in that case there is no foliage left to be affected by the season. The Phormium tenax has never yet flowered with me, and I suspect it may, in part at least, be attributed to its luxuriant profusion of leaves; a phenomenon sometimes incompatible with inflorescence and fruit. A specimen, cultivated by Freycinet in 1813, was about seven feet high, and carried on one stalk, 109 flowers of a greenish yellow colour.

The natives of New-Zealand, agreeable to an account recently transmitted from thence to a friend; and by him communicated to me, adopt the following curious process in sowing the seeds:-- "After preparing the ground, and sowing the seed, if they do not quickly see the plants appear, they spread a quantity of brushwood over the land, and set fire to it. This being done, the plants soon make their appearance, and a crop is ensured." The iodine, or the alkaline matter of the ashes, is no doubt the efficient stimulus in this case. The interesting result referred to, will serve to illustrate the phenomenon called the 'fire weed' on the American Continent, and that of white clover which will sometimes make its appearance, in patches, on barren heaths; when ashes have been sprinkled on the ground; sometimes ignorantly ascribed to what has been called 'spontaneous production'--an atheistical and unphilosophical notion.

The phormium tenax appears to have been originally brought to Ireland in the year 1798. I have seen it, both in the south and north, and from the latter obtained my specimen. It has been reared in gardens in Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Louth, Dublin, and Wicklow; and, in the south of Ireland, was, only on one occasion, triflingly affected by frost, where it had been cultivated for

[Image of page 14]

thirty years. Ireland seems indeed to he a country pre-eminently calculated for the cultivation of this truly estimable plant: and to the philanthropist and patriot, when futurity holds up her mirror, opens up a long and glorious vista of prospective good, incalculable in its benefits and blessings. Myriads of long lost acres reclaimed from swamps and marshes, in the Sister Island, might be compelled to return into "the bosom of the reaper" an abundant and profitable harvest, and thousands and tens of thousands now piping for want, would strike the strings of Erin's sad and lonely harp, and, 'sing for joy.' Captain Harris, whose exertions in this field of benevolence, are beyond all praise, has already pointed out the mine, and shown the excellence of the ore, and I cannot do better than quote bis own words:-- "The relative position of the two countries upon the globe, and the similarity of the climate of New-Zealand to that of Ireland, induced me to conclude that the Phormium tenax might be successfully cultivated in Ireland. The experiments that have been made at my suggestion in Ireland, for some years, have been conducted on a scale, which, however small, is abundantly conclusive of the fact, that this plant thrives luxuriantly, and readily acclimatizes, even in situations less favourable than might have been selected." According to Captain Harris, the Phormium tenax, cultivated in Ireland, produces from THREE TO FOUR HUNDRED LEAVES from ONE PLANT; some of the leaves measuring nearly EIGHT FEET IN LENGTH, and he adds "plants of the Phormium tenax have flourished, in the most exposed situations, for four years, throughout inclement winters, at the distance of ten miles from Dublin." Captain Harris estimates produce of an acre at from THREE TO FOUR TONS OF FIBRE. The price of Phormium tenax flax in the British market is variable, it has been aS low as £18 per ton, and as high as £25., so the average price may be about 20 guineas per ton; and after making every allowance for contingencies, there remains no doubt, that an acre of good ground, property cropped with plants, and well cultivated, should produce at the most moderate computation, two tons and a half of New-Zealand flax, worth £50. sterling,--a most profitable return; and it should never be forgotten, that the plant is perennial, requiring only to be supplied with manure, and the ground freed from weeds, by hoeing, &c. In these times of peace, the price of foreign hemp

[Image of page 15]

and flax has varied from £30. to £50. a ton: and during the war, has risen as high as £70. to £120; a ton.

I have met with the Phormium tenax in many parts of England, and some plants have been grown at the seat of Lord Cawdor, in Pembrokeshire. That the Phormium tenax will succeed well on the soil and in the climate of England, will be proved by an extract, which I may cite in confirmation, from a letter with which I have been favoured by Mr. Walters, Of Bath-Easton; --"I saw a plant of the Phormium tenax last summer, in a gentleman's garden, near Bristol, from whence numerous offsets might easily have been taken, and I obtained one which I potted, and exhibited in the Horticultural Meeting at Bath, accompanied by a specimen of the flax and twine obtained at Bristol; and the plant, being a novelty, was much admired. It was afterwards transferred to a border in my garden, where it has succeeded wonderfully, the leaves being nearly five feet in length, and four inches in breadth."

The difficulty of obtaining mature seeds appears to be a subject of little or no regret, from the great facility, with which plants may be cultivated by offsets. In the month of May last season, I obtained TWELVE fine offsets from two parent plants, and while I now write, their leaves already exceed five feet in length. In the economy of plants, it is worthy of observation, that when circumstances interfere to prevent the ordinary class of means from operating, which a prospective Providence has established, these contingencies are provided for, by other and extraordinary agencies; and in verification of this interesting and important truth, it may not be irrelevant to state, that I have ascertained that offsets, are spontaneously detached from an insulated female plant of the ' Valisneria Spiralis.

M. M. Faujas de St. Fond and Freycinet, with others, have endeavoured to cultivate the Phormium tenax, and it has succeeded to a limited extent in the south of France. It seems well adapted for an insular climate; by the sea coast; where the rigours of climate, and the sudden transitions already referred to, seem to attempered, or subdued by the genial breeze of the ocean. During the day, the aerial current will flow from the sea to the land and modify the excess of temperature arising from the solar rays; while on the other hand, the atmospheric tide will move from the

[Image of page 16]

land to the sea, during night. This latter agitation will considerably modify the effects of radiation, the influence of which is oftentimes so severe on vegetation; indeed, we know that an agitated atmosphere very much counteracts the formation of hoar-frost. Nor, is it unlikely, that the muriates which arise from the sea, and float in the incumbent atmosphere, may be efficient, when mingled with the air wafted to the shore: deliquescent muriates may be considered as fraught with hygrometic relations, that may considerably modify and influence an atmosphere. parched by a summer's sun.

Irrespective of the theory involved in the question, certainly vegetation is not visited in my individual case with the severity that sometimes falls on the district around the spot, already referred to. The Camellia, green tea, (Thea viridis,) and various other shrubs, treasured up usually in the greenhouse, grow with me in the common shrubbery, where also the Mediterranean heath (Erica mediterranea) attains the usual altitude of man; and the arbutus Unedo displays a beauty and a luxuriance in its foliage, blossoms, and fruit, only rivalled by its compeers in an indigenous soil and clime on the Lakes of Killarney, where it forms so graceful an ornament. The Caesarian Kale, or 'Cow-Cabbage,' grows in the same locality to the height of from nine to ten feet: some years ago, I reared the 'Fuller's teasle' (Dipsacus fullonum), and the specimens I presented to the late Sir John Sinclair, the Right Honorable Baronet informed me, were the finest he had ever seen. I mention these curious facts to shew that even in a comparatively high latitude, the sea breeze may considerably attemper the cold, in reference to vegetation on a maritime coast:

The cause of the mildness of the climate of Madeira, and in some degree even in that of Jersey and Guernsey, is to be sought for, I presume, in the freedom from those abrupt transitions which so commonly occur in inland countries; especially in extensive plains, cooled down to a very low degree by radiation, and succeeded by intense heat both direct and reflected. In an insular clime, the transitions referred to, so rapid and in their effects so injurious to vegetation, are subdued, from the commixture of the air resting on the bed of the ocean, with that reposing on the surface of the ground; the former from its contact participating of the more uniform temperature of the sea, which necessarily maintains a compa-

[Image of page 17]

ratively invariable temperature. It is not from the intensity of the cold, abstractedly, that the plant chiefly suffers, but rather from the abrupt or sudden transitions from cold to heat, and vice versa.

According to Salisbury, Phormium tenax plants about three years old, will yield, on an average, 36 leaves besides offsets from the roots; and the leaves being cut down in autumn, other leaves spring up anew in the ensuing summer. Six leaves have produced one ounce weight of dry available fibres, after being scutched and cleaned; therefore one plant of 36 leaves will yield six ounces of good flax--an acre cropped with these plants, according to Salisbury, three feet apart, will yield more than 16 cwt. The leaves are cut when full grown, macerated in water for a few days, and then passed under a weighted roller. The parent plant should be four years old before the offsets are separated, and the month of May is the best season for this purpose. Salisbury's estimate is evidently a minimum, and the specimen on which he has founded his calculations must have been of the most unfavorable description. In New-Zealand, the leaves may be cut down three times a-year, and thus three successive crops may be obtained in one season: in Jamaica and other tropical countries the same exuberant return may be fully calculated on. I am glad to find that Mr. Crossley, of 'Olive-Mount,' near Liverpool, seriously entertains the project of cultivating this 'fine plant' on his estates in Jamaica, and if the information as to its culture, I had it in my power to impart, be found of practical use, I shall rejoice in having contributed my mite to aid the patriotic enterprize.

As soon as the Phormium tenax, agreeable to the description given by Rutherford, is cut down, the natives of New-Zealand carry it home, while yet green. It is then scraped with a large muscle shell, and the cellular substance and investing membrane or epidermis being thus removed, the fibrous part is separated by the thumb-nails, which the New-Zealanders suffer to elongate for this special purpose. Combs are, however, almost entirely employed for a still more minute separation, and the leaf is sometimes held during the process between the toes. The combs employed on these occasions are not dissimilar to those employed by our woolcombers; the fibres are subsequently bleached in the sun and become as white as snow. This plant has been prepared in Norfolk Island under

[Image of page 18]

the direction of Governor King, and since that period in considerable quantities in New South Wales, where it has also been cultivated.

Mr. George Bennet, F.L.S., has supplied a more elaborate and detailed account of the method adopted by the aborigines of New-Zealand for the obtainment of the fibre. "The leaves," he observes, "when full grown are cut down, the best are selected, and a lateral incision made with a shell on each side of the leaf, nearly to cut through the epidermis; the shell is then with a gentle pressure drawn from one side of the incisions rapidly down the leaf, and is afterwards repeated on the other side: by this means the whole of the epidermis is removed, and the internal epidermis, which is thin, usually remains the internal epidermis agglutinates the fibres, and if not removed at first, is subsequently separated with difficulty; and if it remains, deteriorates the "flax."

In this preliminary process females are chiefly, if not entirely employed. The flax is called muka by the natives, and there appear to be several varieties, or qualities, manufactured into wearing apparel, mats, cordage, nets, the latter sometimes of immense size. By some peculiar process, they obtain long and slender fibres, possessed of great whiteness, and of a silky lustre; I have a specimen of New-Zealand cloth made by the natives; the border is a curious fabric, and, if I mistake not, would defy imitation in this country, notwithstanding our advance in the arts and manufactures. The interstitial untwisted fibres which occupy parallel spaces, in the centre of the piece, are extremely beautiful, soft and of a satiny lustre. I believe the Phormium tenax which affords this silky fibre is exclusively obtained from the south of the island. As to the question of the durability of fabrics manufactured from Phormium tenax, on which some degree of scepticism has been ventured, it may be added that Captain Harris has worn the shawl, from whence my specimen was obtained, upwards of twenty years in tropical countries, and it has been used ns an article of dress in this country two years: the texture seems to be altogether unimpaired, and from its present appearance, promises an almost interminable duration.

M. Faujas de St. Fond's process for obtaining the flax is sufficiently simple. He dissolves 3 lbs. of soap in a sufficient quantity

[Image of page 19]

of water, and adds 25 lbs., weight of the split leaves, tied up in bundles. After these have been boiled for five hours, they are afterwards washed in running water. For the following method, I am indebted to my friend Mr. J. W. Wilson, an eminent bleacher, of Barnsley, to whom I freely acknowledge my many obligations for his repeated valuable communications. The leaves being cut down, when the tips begin to fade and separate, are bound into parcels, steeped in boiling water for an hour and a half; beetled gently, and afterwards soaked in water at a temperature of abont 110°. F., and when subsequently washed with soap a fine white fibre is obtained: it is finally bleached with chloride of lime.

The fibres of this valuable plant seem, under proper treatment, to be susceptible of extreme subdivision and tenuity. I have in my possession a specimen of the flax prepared in this country, the fibres of which are extremely fine, and very soft and silky--such indeed as might safely be brought into competition with some of the finest varieties of continental flax in the British market. "These and some other vegetable fibres," Captain Harris observes, "produce a texture resembling that of silk, cotton, and flax; possessing the softness, flexibility, and lightness of the vegetable, and nearly equalling the lustre of the animal production. They may be woven into fabrics of every description, and may be made into lace. They may be wrought as a substitute for silk, into tapestry, damask, and upholstery, with a lustre not much inferior to silk." It is quite remarkable with what rapidity the fibre may be made to pass all its intermediate processes; the plant may be shorn of its leaves in the morning, and before the sun has set be ready for weaving into cloth.

My own experiments corroborate the remarks made by Mr. Wilson to me, namely, that the fibres of Phormium tenax are sufficiently absorbent and retentive of colour. I have imparted a fine yellow colour and also a fawn colour to both Phormium tenax and musa textilis, both permanent; and I venture to predict that, as their value becomes better known, their superior excellence will eventually be more highly appreciated.

The strength of the fibre of Phormium tenax is quite extraordinary: according to Labillardiere, tho comparative strengths of various fibres are as follows,--Agave Americana 7; Flax 11 3/4; Hemp 16 3/4; Phormium tenax 23 7-10; and Silk 24; so that it will

[Image of page 20]

be seen by this comparative estimate, that, the New-Zealand flax is almost as strong as silk, and very far surpasses that of hemp; indeed a rope formed entirely of Phormium tenax, proved by the breaking machine, bore nearly double the strain of Russian hemp. There can be no doubt that the strength of vegetable fibre will vary according to soil, culture, maturity, and mode of preparation. The Italian garden hemp proves the truth of the position: alkalis tend also very much to weaken the fibre, and should be employed with much caution.

I have seen specimens of ropes, twine, yarn, lines, sailcloth, sacking, bed-tick, &c., made of Phormium tenax; also finer fabrics of various kinds, affording demonstrable evidence, that its fibre is susceptible of being woven into tissues of the most delicate description, or manufactured into materials of the strongest and coarsest kind. The sails, cables, and running rigging of the beautiful model of the frigate, presented by His Majesty WILLIAM THE FOURTH to the King of Prussia, were entirely formed from Phormium tenax. Captain Harris's yacht, a perfect gem in naval architecture, is supplied with a mainsail composed of three different varieties of New-Zealand flax, and the cordage is made of musa textilis.

The quantity of Phormium tenax or New-Zealand flax imported into England, via Sydney, in the year 1828, amounted to only 60 tons.; but in 1830, the imports into Sydney for the English market were 841 tons; and in 1831, the quantity reached 1062 tons; and I believe has at this moment not less than 300 tons. Government so far encouraged the importation that, if I am not misinformed, the New-Zealand flax was admitted free of duty, before that impost was removed from European hemp; and I trust this fact forms a well-grounded assurance of a sincere anxiety to encourage an importation connected with the best interests of the community.

A manufactory of Phormium tenax, for fabrics of various kinds, prepared with a solution for which Captain Harris obtained a patent, was opened at Great Grimsby in 1831, is now flourishing, and promises the most important results and complete success, and heartily would I say to Captain Harris's noble enterprize,--ESTO PERPETUA.

A few general remarks connected with the subject may not be an inapposite conclusion. Fibres of various degrees of tenacity are

[Image of page 21]

obtained from vegetation, and from various parts of plants, such as the root, inner bark, and leaf. The roots of the 'poison bulb' of Africa, yield fibres that may be spun into thread: those of the Butea superba supply strong fibres; while the 'Poonah brushes,' obtained from the 'snake root,' are examples of the same kind.

The liber or inner bark of trees is generally a fibrous structure:. that of the lime tree, from whence Russia bass-mats are formed, serves also for cordage in Sweden and Russia. The external plexus which veils the palm furnishes the natives Of tropical countries with fibres employed by them for a variety of purposes,--that of the phoenix dactylifera supplies the cordage of the vessels that navigate the Red Sea. The spathe that shrouds the spadix of some palms is a singular reticular structure, 4 and the natives of South America cook their food, and evaporate sea water in it. The 'shirt trees' of the Cerra Duritla, in South America, and the 'natoo' or inner bark of the paper mulberry of the South Seas, exhibit examples of natural cloth of a highly fibrous character. The truly elegant fabric of the inner bark of the Daphne Lagetto, 5 or 'Lace-bark tree' is sometimes used for ropes in Jamaica: it would make a paper of the finest and most durable description, could it be obtained in sufficient quantity and at an expense sufficiently moderate. I have an exquisite specimen of this natural lace that might vie with the most beautiful refinements of art. The fibres of the mid-rib of the Pothos acaulis, Grewia appositifolia, abroma guttata, microlaena spectabilis, musa paradisiaca, and others, might be referred to in illustration. The liber of the common bramble afforded me a tough, pliant, and strong fibre: a durable and silky fibre may be obtained from the American aloe, and has even, I believe, been formed into lace. The yucca filamentosa yields a stout fibre; and what is called 'Chinese hemp' is the produce of the corchorus capsularis.

There are few fibres that merit more attention than those that envelope the cocoa nut; they possess a remarkable elasticity, and when formed into a cable have enabled a 74 gun ship to ride out the gale in safety during a West India hurricane, when European cables have parted. A rope composed of a combination of these

[Image of page 22]

fibres with those of the Phormium tenax would be invaluable, the former possessing an extraordinary elasticity, and the latter uniting the qualities of tenacity and strength. Such a cable would brave the monsoon of an eastern hemisphere, and the hurricane of the west. Cables made of the fibre of the cocoa nut are called, 'coar.' In a gale in the Downs in the year 1803, seventeen East Indiamen supplied with these cables rode out the storm in safety, while seven ships of war either drove or parted. Cables of cocoa nut fibres are bulky, and hence occupy more room than chain cables, but this disadvantage in the economy of space is more than counterbalanced by its inestimable value in the storm. The fibre of the cocoa nut has been successfully employed to produce a nankeen dye.

The fibres of flax, hemp, Phormium tenax, musa textilis, urtica tenuicissima, pita or silk grass, bromelia, yucca, &c;, are among the most valuable for the arts and manufactures. Many of these fibres are of great length; of those of musa textilis I have specimens nine feet long:; some are soft and silky, and some unite all these excellencies. The fibres of the yucca filamentosa are easily separated by moistening and beating the leaves, and simply separating the cuticle from the fibre with the nail, as the natives of New-Zealand do with the Phormium tenax. 6

I have an extremely beautiful specimen of cloth, made, as I am assured, from the fibres of some particular species of 'grass' in Guatemala, in South America. It is a beautiful check, soft and altogether remarkable. The Chinese manufacture cloth from a species of lamium or dead nettle, and I have seen a fine fabric in the north of Italy made from the common nettle,--urtica urens. I have a piece of cloth from St. Mary's, an island to the east of Madagascar: it is wiry and not so soft as the Guatemala fabric, and have no doubt it is the produce of the plant called by the natives of Madagascar 'brad,' and there separated by a comb into fibres, and woven into mats, cloth, &c.

One of the most curious vegetable fibres with which I am acquainted is that which clothes the surface of the cactus senilis, and

[Image of page 23]

imparts to that extraordinary looking plant, the similitude of "an old, a very old man"--some being that had weathered the snows of a century. The appearance of the fibre more resembles that of the hair of an animal, 7 than what belongs to vegetation. I have a somewhat similar species of fibre obtained from an African plant, but am ignorant of its name. When the fibre of the tilandsia usneoides is separated from its cuticle or epidermis it bears a striking resemblance to horse hair, and is employed to stuff cushions; mattresses, &c. This remarkable plant is found perched among trees in tropical countries, and is ranked among the curious class of 'Epiphytes.' Its pendent fibres are of considerable length, and are commonly called 'long beard,' or 'Spanish grey beard.' I have seen some of the pendulous nests of the 'Bonana bird' wholly constructed of these curious fibres, and another nest fabricated from those of the trunk of the palm; Mr. Wilson, of Barnsley, has put into my hands parcels of fibres from Africa, obtained from what has been called 'pine apple plant;' no doubt a bromelia. Some of this tribe of plants bear splendid flowers; that of the bilbergia irridiflora is truly lovely. I succeeded in readily separating the fibres from a portion of the pedunculus or flower stem of the bannana, and find it susceptible of being easily blenched.

The 'pita' or 'silk grass line' seems at once to possess pliability and lightness, and is sufficiently strong to bear the strain which accompanies the velocity of the shot. Manby's apparatus, as, well as my own invention, promise to be benefitted by it; and Mr. Gibbes, of the customs, Yarmouth, says-- "the grass line weighed, dry, 29 lbs., increased on being wetted only 4 1/2 lbs, and was quite free from harshness or kink; in consequence it coiled easier and dried quicker; under all which circumstances, I think it very desirable for Captain Manby's apparatus." The silk grass line, by the evidence given before Mr. Justice Tindal, would appear to be nearly three times stronger than Russia hemp.

[Image of page 24]

I have obtained a sufficient quantity of Captain Harris' prepared cord for garden lines, for which it seems to be well adapted; also lines for comparative trials of Phormium tenax and musa textilis, with and without his solution being applied--for my shipwreck apparatus. For sash cords for window frames, and in conservatories, Phormium tenax seems to be safer and preferable, to all others, and I have recommended it to be exclusively used in the support of the machine in my shower bath--now in extensive use, and universally approved.

It is wonderful to what degree of tenuity the fibre of flax has been carried and extended by the improved process recently introduced of passing the "roving," as it is called, through hot water.

I am informed that one pound of flax has been spun, in the kingdom of Westphalia, into yarn so fine as to extend upwards of seventy English miles; indeed Mr, Marshall, of Leeds, in this country, has nearly approached that degree of fineness. The finest linen yarn yet spun and prepared by machinery is 240 'leas' or about 60,000 yards to the pound weight of 16 ounces; valued at one pound sterling for 60,000 yards, or one pound weight of flax when spun into yarn. At that rate, the price of the yarn would be £2,240 per ton; the original cost of the flax being two hundred guineas.

I have a beautiful specimen of flax prepared from Phormium tenax that, might vie with the finest samples of Flemish flax, and of this last I have one valued at &c.200 per ton, such as is spun into yarn on the continent for the ordinary kinds of French and Brussels lace. I am told that the finest description of flax is cultivated under cover in Westphalia, and in all probability there is a finer variety of the flax (linum) than that in ordinary cultivation. I was informed in some of the Italian markets, that a kind of flax called lino monochino was originally obtained from Bavaria, and from its superior fineness always secured the highest price. It has been said that there have been specimens of linen thread, the value of which has exceeded its weight in gold! but there is to be seen at Valenciennes, in France, two pounds weight of flaxen thread intended for the finest specimens of French lace, valued at TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS STERLING! and the length of this thread is 2,890,800 feet--less than one-ninth of the radius or semidiameter of the globe.

1   The seeds of this plant are an excellent febrifuge, when prepared like coffee, and in taste and flavor can scarcely be distinguished from it. It was brought into notice, several years ago, by Mr. Skrimshire, a medical gentleman of Wisbech, where I first met with it at the breakfast table.
2   The seeds brought by Nicholas from New-Zealand in 1815, did not germinate.
3   Strips of the leaves, from their flexibility and toughness, I find very useful when employed for the same purposes in the garden, as bass-mat, willow, &c., in attaching trees and shrubs to trellis-work or walls.
4   It is bleached without mach difficulty.
5   A cravat of this natural lace was worn by Charles II., being presented by the Governor of Jamaica.
6   Captain Harris tells me that the Phormium tenax is growing with him out of doors, at Great Grimsby, as well as other 'flax plants,'--among the latter, I believe, seven species of the yucca, several of them about to flower. The yucca gloriosa, yucca filamentosa, and yucca tenuifolia are the only species that I have seen in flower, sub die, in this country.
7   The following interesting fact may be mentioned in reference to the comparative duration of vegetable and animal fibre. A piece of cloth composed of linen and woollen threads, had remained in the arctic regions from the period of the wreck of the Fury, until Captain Ross' late expedition. The fibres of the former were in a state of Complete decomposition and decay, while those of the latter had sustained no change whatever, and the specimen I have seen proves that the woollen threads are as perfect as ever they were.

Previous section | Next section