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Common Flax
Common Flax
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Malpighiales
Family: Linaceae
Genus: Linum
Species: L. usitatissimum
Binomial name
Linum usitatissimum

Flax (also known as Common Flax or Linseed) is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. The New Zealand flax is unrelated. Flax originated in India and was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. [1]

It is an erect annual plant growing to 120 cm tall, with slender stems. The leaves are glaucous green, slender lanceolate, 2-4 cm long and 3 mm broad. The flowers are pure pale blue, 1.5-2.5 cm diameter, with five petals. The fruit is a round, dry capsule 5-9 mm diameter, containing several glossy brown seeds shaped like an apple pip, 4-7 mm long.

In addition to the plant itself, flax may refer to the unspun fibres of the flax plant.



Flax flower
Flax flower

Flax is grown both for seed and for fibre. Various parts of the plant have been used to make fabric, dye, paper, medicines, fishing nets and soap. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens, as flax is one of the few plant species that is capable of producing truly blue flowers (most "blue" flowers are really shades of purple), although not all flax varieties produce blue flowers.

Flax seed

The seeds produce a vegetable oil known as linseed oil or flaxseed oil. It is one of the oldest commercial oils and solvent-processed flax seed oil has been used for centuries as a drying oil in painting and varnishing. Flax seeds come in two basic varieties; brown and yellow (also referred to as golden). Although brown flax can be consumed and has been for thousands of years, it is better known as an ingredient in paints, fibre and cattle feed. Brown and yellow flax have similar nutritional values and equal amounts of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The exception is a type of yellow flax called solin which is very low in omega-3 and has a completely different oil profile. A number of studies have shown that people have a very hard time absorbing the Omega-3 from flaxseed oil compared to oily fish (see Fish and plants as a source of Omega-3 for more).

A North Dakota State University research project led to the creation of a new variety of the yellow flax seed called "Omega"[2]. This new variety was created primarily as a food source and has a more pleasant nutty-buttery flavour than the brown variety and retains a comparable level of the beneficial Omega-3 oil.

Flax seed
Flax seed

One tablespoon of ground flax seeds and three tablespoons of water may serve as a replacement for one egg in baking by binding the other ingredients together, and ground flax seeds can also be mixed in with oatmeal, yogurt, water (similar to Metamucil), or any other food item where a nutty flavour is appropriate. Flaxseed oil is most commonly consumed with salads or in capsules. Flax seed owes its nutritional benefits to lignans and omega-3 essential fatty acids. Omega-3s, often in short supply in populations with low-fish diets, promote heart health by reducing cholesterol, blood pressure and plaque formation in arteries. In addition, flaxseed oil is often recommended as a galactagogue. Lignans benefit the heart and possess anti-cancer properties: A series of research studies by Lilian U. Thompson and her colleagues at the Department of Nutritional Science of the University of Toronto have reported that flaxseed can have a beneficial effect in reducing tumour growth in mice, particularly the kind of tumour found in human post-menopausal breast cancer. The effects are thought to be due to the lignans in flaxseed, and are additive with those of tamoxifen, the currently standard drug treatment for these cancers. Initial studies suggest that flaxseed taken in the diet have similar beneficial effects in human cancer patients. Reports that flaxseed is beneficial in other cancers, e.g. prostate cancer, are less numerous but promising.

Flax seed sprouts are edible, with a slightly spicy flavour.

Flax fibre

Flax fibres are amongst the oldest fibre crops in the world. The use of flax for the production of linen goes back 5000 years. Pictures on tombs and temple walls at Thebes depict flowering flax plants. The use of flax fibre in the manufacturing of cloth in northern Europe dates back to pre-Roman times. In North America, flax was introduced by the Pilgrim fathers. Currently most flax produced in the USA and Canada are seed flax types for the production of linseed oil or flaxseeds for human nutrition.

Flax stem cross-section, showing locations of underlying tissues. Ep = epidermis; C = cortex; BF = bast fibres; P = phloem; X = xylem; Pi = pith
Flax stem cross-section, showing locations of underlying tissues. Ep = epidermis; C = cortex; BF = bast fibres; P = phloem; X = xylem; Pi = pith

Flax fibre is extracted from the bast or skin of the stem of flax plant. Flax fibre is soft, lustrous and flexible. It is stronger than cotton fibre but less elastic. The best grades are used for linen fabrics such as damasks, lace and sheeting. Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine and rope. Flax fibre is also a raw material for the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknotes and rolling paper for cigarettes.


Developing flax
Developing flax

The major fibre flax-producing countries are the former USSR, Poland, France, Belgium, Ireland, and the Czech Republic.

The soils most suitable for flax, besides the alluvial kind, are deep friable loams, and containing a large proportion of organic matter. Heavy clays are unsuitable, as are soils of a gravelly or dry sandy nature.

Flax is harvested for fibre production when still green, before seed maturation as the fibre starts to degrade later; it is pulled up with the roots (not cut), so as to maximise the fibre length. Immediately after harvesting, it is put in water to soak (retting) to rot off the non-fibrous material in the stems. Retting takes 7-12 days, depending on temperature.

Flax grown for seed is allowed to mature until the seed capsules are yellow and just starting to split; it is then harvested by combine harvester and dried to extract the seed.

Threshing flax

The process is divided into two parts: the first part is intended for the farmer, or flax-grower, to bring the flax into a fit state for general or common purposes. This is performed by three machines: one for threshing out the seed, one for breaking and separating the wood from the fibre, and one for further separating the broken wood and matter from the fibre. In some cases the farmers will perhaps thrash out the seed in their own mill and therefore, in such cases, the first machine will be, of course, unnecessary.

The second part of the process is intended for the manufacturer to bring the flax into a state for the very finest purposes, such as lace, cambric, damask, and very fine linen. This second part is performed by the refining machine only.

The threshing process would be conducted as follows:

  • Take the flax in small bundles, as it comes from the field or stack, and holding it in the left hand, put the seed end between the threshing machine and the bed or block against which the machine is to strike; then take the handle of the machine in the right hand, and move the machine backward and forward, to strike on the flax, until the seed is all threshed out.
  • Take the flax in small handfuls in the left hand, spread it flat between the third and little finger, with the seed end downwards, and the root-end above, as near the hand as possible.
  • Put the handful between the beater of the breaking machine, and beat it gently till the three or four inches, which have been under the operation of the machine, appear to be soft.
  • Remove the flax a little higher in the hand, so as to let the soft part of the flax rest upon the little finger, and continue to beat it till all is soft, and the wood is separated from the fibre, keeping the left hand close to the block and the flax as flat upon the block as possible. 
  • The other end of the flax is then to be turned, and the end which has been beaten is to be wrapped round the little finger, the root end flat, and beaten in the machine till the wood is separated, exactly in the same way as the other end was beaten.


The logo of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a six flowered flax plant.
The logo of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a six flowered flax plant.
  • Common flax is the national flower of Belarus.
  • Flax is the emblem of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
  • The flax plant appeared on the reverse of the UK one pound coin to represent Northern Ireland on coins minted in 1986 and 1991.
  • In English, blond hair is traditionally referred to as "fair" or "flaxen".


  1. ^ Alister D. Muir, Neil D. Westcot, "Flax: The Genus Linum"., page 3 (August 1, 2003)
  2. ^ Miller, J.F., J.J. Hammond, and G.D. Statler. (1992). "Registration of ‘Omega’ Flax.". Crop Science 32: 1065.
  • USDA profile of flax
  • The 1881 Household Cyclopedia
  • Chen, J. M., Wang, L., & Thompson, L. U. (2006). Flaxseed and its components reduce metastasis after surgical excision of solid human breast tumor in nude mice. Cancer Letters, 234, 168-175.
  • Thompson, L. U., Chen, J. M., Li, T., Strasser-Weippl, K., & Goss, P. E. (2005). Dietary flaxseed alters tumor biological markers in postmenopausal breast cancer. Clinical Cancer Research, 11, 3828-3835.
  • Alternative Field Crops Manual: Flax
  • Flax Council of Canada Guide to Growing Flax

See also

Home | Up | Essential oils | Garlic | Herbal and fungal hallucinogens | Herbal and fungal stimulants | Medicinal plants | Castor oil plant | Dandelion | Echinacea | Eucalyptus | Flax | Ginger | Ginkgo | Hop | Mistletoe | Oat | Peppermint | Rosemary | Saffron | Sassafras | Willow | Yeast

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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