Flax (linum usitatissimum)

Flax — a slender, branching annual that bears delicate, five-petaled blue flowers — is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants and certainly the oldest textile fiber. Although its origins are not fully known, flax is presumed to be native to Egypt, where it has been used since ancient times to make linen. In Biblical times, three grades of linen were made, ranging from coarse to extremely fine.

Flax

Plant profile

Common Names: Flax, Flaxseed, Linseed

Description: Slender, branching annual, up to 30 inches tall; delicate, five-petaled blue flowers followed by fruits containing up to 10 glossy brown seeds

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Linaceae

Flowering: June to August

Parts Used: Stems and seeds

Range/Habitat: Believed to be native to Egypt

Culinary use

Flaxseed adds a subtle nutty flavor to salads, baked goods, and cereals. Try adding the nutritious seeds to breakfast smoothies, or mix them with honey for a tasty breakfast spread. The seeds are most easily digested when they’re ground — but ground or whole, they should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. Use flaxseed oil in salad dressing. Flaxseed oil is highly perishable, so store it in an opaque bottle in your refrigerator.

Medicinal use

Flaxseed oil is a rich source of the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, which is required for the formation of cell membranes in your body. Fatty acids are converted into prostaglandins that may help reduce inflammation and allergies. Flaxseed oil has been shown to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol levels. It may offer a protective effect against cancer, particularly breast cancer. The seeds have a long history of use in treating chronic constipation. Applied externally, flaxseed may help draw toxins from your blood, reduce inflammation, and speed the healing of superficial wounds.

Caution: Flaxseed should be taken with at least 6 ounces of liquid; otherwise, it can promote constipation. Do not take flaxseed if you believe you have a bowel obstruction.

Other uses

Flax fibers can be woven into fabric, called linen, or used for making baskets or crafts. Obtaining the fiber involves soaking the flax stems in water, drying them, and then crushing them so that the stem’s woody core separates from the usable fibers. To make linen, the fibers are combed, spun, and then woven.

Raw, unprocessed flax oil is used as a nutritional supplement, while processed oil from the seeds of this plant, combined with additives, is known as linseed oil. Linseed oil is used in paints, putty, and finishes for wood.

How to grow it

Flax thrives in deep, fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. It prefers relatively cool temperatures and should be sown outdoors at the same time peas and other cool-weather crops are planted. For the best-quality fiber, cut stems about 3 months after planting — after they’ve flowered but before seedpods form. To obtain seeds, pull up the entire plant when the lower leaves turn yellow and the seedpods are golden. Hang the plants in a warm, dry location. When the seedpods are dry, place them in a bag and crush them with a rolling pin or other hard object; separate the broken pods from the seeds with a sieve or colander.

More Than Fiber

In the past, flax was much more than a food, medicine, and fiber plant. In parts of Europe, it was a good luck charm with the power to ward off evil. Flax was planted around houses and graves, added to coffins, and suspended above doorways to protect against spirits from the underworld.

Curiously, in many of these legends, the spirits were distracted from their evil deeds because they stopped to count the plant’s small seeds, fibers, or threads. Flax garments also had great religious and spiritual significance; for Israelite priests, for example, linen was the proscribed clothing.

When the plants are ready to harvest, the field is a sea of brown capsules ready to release their tiny seeds. And while we can’t evaluate the veracity of some traditional beliefs about flax in today’s laboratories, we do know that including flaxseed in our diets can help provide protection against some serious diseases and promote good health.