An annual, versatile flax (Linum usitatissimum) supplies fiber, seed, and inside the seed, oil. The genus Linum derives from the Celtic lin, meaning “thread,” a probable reference to flax fiber. The species name usitatissimum derives from the Latin for “most useful,” a reference to the many uses of flax. A member of the Linaceae family, flax is of two types: fiber or textile flax and linseed, oilseed, or seed flax. No cultivar yields the highest-quality fiber, oil, and seed. Rather, one class of flax cultivar yields quality fiber, and another class yields quality oil and seed. The fiber is spun into linen. The oil is known as linseed oil and has several uses.
Origin and History
Flax is an ancient crop. It may have originated in India, which has the largest number of wild species. Although the earliest remains of flax, dating to 8000 BCE in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, were probably from wild plants, its cultivation might date to 7000 BCE, making it among the first plants to have been domesticated. Humans first cultivated flax in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Before 6000 BCE, the presence of large flax seeds in Syria and Iraq evidence cultivation and selection. As early as 6000 BCE, the people near the Dead Sea in Syria made linen garments. About 5000 BCE, this practice spread to Egypt and Judea. By 4000 BCE, the Swiss were making linen clothes. These early examples suggest that humans first cultivated flax for fiber and only second for oil and seed, though as early as 3000 BCE the Chinese extracted oil from flax seeds. By 1400 BCE, the Egyptians used linseed oil for embalming and linen for wrapping mummies. By 1000 BCE, the people of Jordan and Greece were making bread from flax seeds.
Flax flowers (Elena Elisseeva/Dreamstime.com)
The Ethiopians made flax into stew, porridge, and beverages. In the Iron Age (900 to 400 BCE), Scandinavians spun flax fibers into linen. The Abyssinians of the southern Nile River used flax for oil and the seed for cereal and bread. They grew short cultivars that did not lodge and that bore large seeds. By 500 BCE, the use of flax was common as a laxative and poultice. Around this time, the Phoenicians, trading flax from Egypt, introduced the plant to Flanders and Britain. The Greeks and Romans used flax as fiber, food, and medicine. They made a dish of flaxseed, barley, spices, and salt and made wheat-flax bread. First-century CE Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder remarked that flax had so many uses, though he noted that it exhausted the soil. So greatly did it impoverish the soil that the ancients grew flax on the same land only every seventh year.
Around 800 CE, Frankish king Charlemagne ordered farmers to grow flax. By 1000, Flanders had emerged as the center of the linen trade. Around 1600, the French introduced flax into North America.
Grown in temperate locales and the subtropics, flax is made into cloth, canvas, yarn, carpet, paper, and insulation. Farmers who wish to grow flax for fiber cultivate tall varieties that yield long fibers. These varieties grow between 31.5 and 47.25 inches tall. Farmers plant these cultivars densely to deter them from forming multiple branches and from producing numerous seeds. Densely planted flax expends its energy in elongating its stem rather than in branching or reproducing. The long fibers yield linen, and the short ones are processed into paper. Today, fiber flax is harvested about 100 days after planting. The process of separating the fiber from the rest of the stem is known as retting and is a simple process. To obtain the longest fiber the plant is uprooted rather than cut. The ancients laid flax stalks on the ground or on a rooftop and kept them moist. The morning dew sufficed to moisten flax stalks. Alternatively, the Egyptians submerged them in the Nile River, and the Romans weighted them down in tanks of water. The moisture encouraged the growth of microbes, which dissolved the gum and pectin holding the fibers together. Once microbes had done their work, the ancients peeled off the fibers from the rest of the stalk for spinning into linen. Flax is an ideal fabric for warm climates because the fiber carries sweat away from the body, aiding evaporation.
Depending on the type of fiber they sought, the Egyptians harvested flax in three stages. The first occurred before the plant flowered. These immature stalks yielded the finest, softest fiber, from which the Egyptians made the clothes of the nobility. The second and largest harvest occurred 30 days after flowering, when the fiber was thicker and less soft. Fibers from this harvest made the clothes of commoners. The final harvest occurred several weeks after the second harvest and yielded the coarsest fiber, suitable for making rope and mats. The final harvest yielded seeds for planting next season.
So important was flax to the Egyptians that they believed that the gods had created it for their own use. The Egyptians spun flax fibers into clothes, towels, bed sheets, sails, fishing nets, rope, and funereal textiles. The pharaohs appointed a director of the king’s flax to supervise production. They established flax mills in Thebes, Akhmim, and Memphis. As early as 1900 BCE, the Egyptians dyed linen with red and yellow iron oxide. By 1500 BCE, they dyed linen with indigo. The linen trade was lucrative enough to attract the Phoenicians as the principal carriers, supplying the rest of the Mediterranean with Egyptian flax.
So strong was flax fiber that Persian king Xerxes (520-465 BCE), fifth-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus reported, bought some from the Phoenicians to build a bridge across the Hellespont, presumably to invade Greece in the fifth century BCE. The Romans established linen mills in France and Britain. In the 18th century, Scotland and Ireland erected linen factories. Canadians and Americans made a fabric of linen and wool known as linsey-woolsey or winsey. It remained popular until the end of the U.S. Civil War. Today, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Canada, the United States, India, China, Argentina, France, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Spain, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Italy, Mexico, Australia, Argentina, and Sweden grow flax for fiber. In the United States, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana are the principal producers. China grows flax for domestic use. The North and Northwest are the principal regions of flax culture. Cultivation has declined in Sweden, where fungi limit yields. Sweden’s cool, wet springs hasten the spread of fungi. Production has also diminished in Poland, where the yield dropped from 312,000 tons on 245,000 acres in 1970 to 100,000 tons on 70,000 acres in 1987. Although the United Kingdom produces flax, the yield does not meet demand. To satisfy demand Britain imports 75 percent of its linen from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Egypt.
Medicinal Use, Food, and Oil
Flaxseed is 35-45 percent oil, 22 percent protein, 12 percent fiber, and 10 percent mucilage. Oilseed flax, shorter than fiber flax, grows to a height of 23.5 to 31.5 inches. Farmers plant linseed flax farther apart than fiber flax to encourage linseed flax to produce abundant flowers and seeds. Today, farmers harvest oilseed flax 150 days after planting. Linseed oil is used in the manufacture of paint, stain, varnish, putty, concrete preservatives, glue, ink, and soap. Linseed cake feeds livestock.
The ancients appreciated the value of flax as medicine. Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) recommended the consumption of flax seeds as a remedy for intestinal pain. Charlemagne, perhaps aware of Hippocrates’s pronouncements, recommended flaxseed as treatment for gastrointestinal trouble. Recent research has heightened awareness of flax’s benefits. A study at the University of Toronto has demonstrated that the consumption of flaxseed reduces cholesterol. The British Journal of Nutrition reports that four weeks’ flaxseed in the diet reduced glucose in the blood 27 percent and cholesterol 7 percent. Another study documents the efficacy of flaxseed in preventing cancer cells from replicating. Others have underscored the effectiveness of flax in alleviating constipation, stomach trouble, high blood pressure, heart disease, and heartburn. Flaxseed contains 75 to 800 times more lignan than wheat bran, oats, millet, rye, soybean, and other legumes. Lignan may prevent heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and cancers of the breast, prostate, uterus, and colon. Flaxseed helps bacteria reestablish themselves in the intestines after a course of antibiotics. According to one authority, the consumption of flaxseed improves the immune system. Flax is rich in insoluble and soluble fiber. Two-thirds of flax’s fiber is insoluble. Aware of these benefits, the Food and Drug Administration has championed flaxseed “as a food for disease prevention.”
Flax merits the attention of medical practitioners in part because it contains omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, essential lipids that the body needs but that it cannot manufacture on its own. Flax grown in cold climates produces more omega 3 than flax grown in warm climates. Flax grown in warm climates has more omega 6. Linseed oil is 48-64 percent omega 3, the richest plant source of this lipid; 16-34 percent is omega 6; and the rest is omega 9, the fat that is in olive oil. Flaxseed has a higher proportion of these fatty acids than the oil from any other plant. Today, stockmen feed flaxseed to livestock to increase the amount of omega 3 in their tissues, which, when consumed, benefits humans with the accumulation of this fatty acid. Flax oil helps the body metabolize fat. Some people who have ingested flax oil as part of their diet have lost weight. Linseed oil has been used to fry food, illuminate lamps, and preserve paint and flooring. Linseed oil has been the principal oil in many farming communities in China since antiquity. In Europe and North America, farmers grow flax for oil where they cannot grow peanut or olive. So important was linseed oil that the Egyptians anointed themselves with it before they left home. They welcomed guests into the home by anointing them with linseed oil. The Egyptians anointed the statues of their gods with linseed oil. The priests, apparently operating on the principle that if a little oil was good a lot was better, poured linseed oil on their heads. They Egyptians anointed the dead with linseed oil.
Since antiquity, Germans have eaten flax-rye bread. The Flax Council of Canada reports that Germans, as an aggregate, consume more than tons of flaxseed per year in bread and cereal. Some people eat flaxseed in soup and sauce and with vegetables and grain. Today, bakers add flaxseed to bread, bagels, muffins, cookies, buns, and dinner rolls. It is also added to nutrition bars.
Flaxseed is of two types: golden and brown. Golden flax seeds are large, soft, and flavorful. Golden flaxseed is expensive because the yield is low. Golden flax seeds have more protein and less oil than brown flax seeds and are eaten in cereal and bread. Brown flax seeds are small, hard, and less flavorful and have high oil content. Flaxseed has vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D, and E.
Biology, Cultivation, and Science
Flax flowers have blue, white, and red petals. Each flower, having both anthers and stigma, is perfect. Self-fertile, these flowers self-pollinate in most cases, though insects visit them, taking pollen to other flowers, thereby cross-pollinating them. Once fertilized the seeds are, we have seen, either golden or brown. The plant is indeterminate, growing throughout its life. Fax grows well in soil with organic matter. The soil should be loose and well draining. The plant needs 70 to 100 days to mature and prefers humidity and overcast skies. Although planting density varies according to whether the plant will be used for fiber or for oil and seeds, it averages 44 pounds of seeds per acre. India grows flax for both fiber and oil. China cultivates flax in the Loess Plateau, the grassland, the Yellow River valley, Xinjiang, and Quighai Highlands.
In the 17th century, British king Charles I advised the governor of Virginia to encourage farmers to plant flax. That century German immigrants may have been the first to cultivate flax in Pennsylvania. Each family raised two acres of flax to meet its own needs. Colonists were careful to choose fertile, well-drained soil. They avoided the extremes of clay and sand. The farmer was blessed who could count on rainfall evenly distributed throughout the year.
The yield per acre depends on the progress of science and the development of new cultivars. In 2003, Russia yielded hundreds of pounds of fiber and seeds per acre. The cultivars Alexin, A-93, and Lenok have shattered these figures, yielding thousands of pounds of fiber and seeds per acre. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Crop Development Center at the University of Saskatchewan breed new varieties. In the United States, North Dakota State University is the leading flax breeder. Belgium grows Regina and Belinks varieties on the coast and Arianne, Natasja, and Viking inland. One authority recommends the rotation of flax with other crops to minimize pathogens and insects. In Russia, farmers rotate flax with potato, grain, and clover. Because grains are heavy feeders, the farmer should apply nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to the soil when flax follows them. Flax is less successful when it follows potato because the potato demands large amounts of nitrogen, whose residue causes flax to grow tall, leaving it susceptible to lodging and lowering fiber quality. In North America, farmers rotate flax with wheat, barley, corn, or a legume. Flax does not yield well when it follows potato, sugar beet, or canola. The benefits of rotation are so compelling that flax monoculture is uncommon in North America. Indian farmers rotate flax with corn, sorghum, millet, peanut, cowpea, chickpea, lentil, and safflower. The Chinese rotate flax with millet, barley, wheat, and potato. In Russia, the soil should have 15 milligrams of phosphorus and potassium per one 100 grams of soil. Where zinc is deficient, the farmer should spray a solution with 500 grams of zinc sulfate per hectare when seedlings emerge. In North America, oilseed flax responds well to nitrogen. One authority recommends the addition of 30 to 70 pounds of nitrogen per acre and 13 to 26 pounds of phosphorus per acre to Canadian soils. In China and India, farmers often plant flax on marginal land, rarely with adequate fertilizer. Canadians plant flax in mid-May and Russians in May. In India, farmers plant flax after the monsoon, usually in October or November. Farmers in Kashmir, however, plant in February or March. Argentines plant flax between May 15 and July 1; the later date holds for Buenos Aires in the north and Santa Fe in the south.
Bloomfield, Barbara, Judy Brown, and Siegfried Gursche. Flax: The Super Food! Summertown, TN: Book, 2000.
Heinrich, Linda. The Magic of Linen: Flax Seed to Woven Cloth. Victoria, Canada: Orca, 1992.
Muir, Alister D., and Neil D. Westcott. Flax: The Genus Linum. London: Routledge, 2003.