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.
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 is grown both for seed and
for its fibers. 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.
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". This new variety was created primarily as a food source
and has a more pleasant nutty-buttery flavor than the brown variety and
retains a comparable level of the beneficial Omega-3
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 flavor is appropriate Flaxseed oil is most
commonly consumed with salads or in capsules. Flax seed owes its nutritional
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 tumor growth in mice,
particularly the kind of tumor 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
Flax seed sprouts are edible,
with a slightly spicy flavor.
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 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.
The major fibre flax-producing
countries are the former USSR, Poland, France, Belgium, Ireland, and the
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.