Flax (Linum usitatissimum), also known as common flax or linseed, is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. It is a food and fiber crop cultivated in cooler regions of the world. The textiles made from flax are known in the Western countries as linen, and traditionally used for bed sheets, underclothes, and table linen. The oil is known as linseed oil. In addition to referring to the plant itself, the word "flax" may refer to the unspun fibers of the flax plant. The plant species is known only as a cultivated plant, and appears to have been domesticated just once from the wild species Linum bienne, called pale flax.
Several other species in the genus Linum are similar in appearance to L. usitatissimum, cultivated flax, including some that have similar blue flowers, and others with white, yellow, or red flowers. Some of these are perennial plants, unlike L. usitatissimum, which is an annual plant.
Cultivated flax plants grow to 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) tall, with slender stems. The leaves are glaucous green, slender lanceolate, 20–40 mm long, and 3 mm broad.
The flowers are pure pale blue, 15–25 mm in diameter, with five petals. The fruit is a round, dry capsule 5–9 mm in diameter, containing several glossy brown seeds shaped like an apple pip, 4–7 mm long.
The earliest evidence of humans using wild flax as a textile comes from the present-day Republic of Georgia, where spun, dyed, and knotted wild flax fibers were found in Dzudzuana Cave and dated to the Upper Paleolithic, 30,000 years ago. Flax was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region. Evidence exists of a domesticated oilseed flax with increased seed size by 9,000 years ago from Tell Ramad in Syria. Use of the crop steadily spread, reaching as far as Switzerland and Germany by 5,000 years ago. In China and India, domesticated flax was cultivated also at least 5,000 years ago.
Flax was cultivated extensively in ancient Egypt, where the temple walls had paintings of flowering flax, and mummies were entombed in linen. Egyptian priests only wore linen, as flax was considered a symbol of purity. Phoenicians traded Egyptian linen throughout the Mediterranean and the Romans used it for their sails. As the Roman Empire declined, so did flax production, but Charlemagne revived the crop in the eighth century CE with laws designed to publicize the hygiene of linen textiles and the health of linseed oil. Eventually, Flanders became the major center of the linen industry in the European Middle Ages. In North America, flax was introduced by the colonists and it flourished there, but by the early twentieth century, cheap cotton and rising farm wages had caused production of flax to become concentrated in northern Russia, which came to provide 90% of the world's output. Since then, flax has lost its importance as a commercial crop, due to the easy availability of more durable fibres.
Flax is grown for its oil, used as a nutritional supplement, and as an ingredient in many wood-finishing products. Flax is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens. Flax fibers are used to make linen. The Latin species name usitatissimum means "most useful".
Flax fibers are taken from the stem of the plant, and are two to three times as strong as those of cotton. Additionally, flax fibers are naturally smooth and straight. Europe and North America depended on flax for vegetable-based cloth until the nineteenth century, when cotton overtook flax as the most common plant used for making rag-based paper. Flax is grown on the Canadian prairies for linseed oil, which is used as a drying oil in paints and varnishes and in products such as linoleum and printing inks. In India, flax seed oil also is known as alsi in Hindi and javas in Marathi. It is mainly used in Savji curries, such as mutton curries.
Linseed meal, the by-product obtained after oil production from flax seeds, is used to feed livestock. It is a protein-rich feed for ruminants, rabbits and fish.
Flaxseeds occur in two basic varieties: brown, and yellow or golden (also known as golden linseeds). Most types have similar nutritional characteristics and equal numbers of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The exception is a type of yellow flax called solin (trade name Linola), which has a completely different oil profile and is very low in omega-3 FAs. Flaxseeds produce a vegetable oil known as flaxseed oil or linseed oil, which is one of the oldest commercial oils. It is an edible oil obtained by expeller pressing, sometimes followed by solvent extraction. Solvent-processed flaxseed oil has been used for many centuries as a drying oil in painting and varnishing.
Although brown flax may be consumed as readily as yellow, and has been for thousands of years, its better-known uses are in paints, for fiber, and for cattle feed.
A 100-gram portion of ground flaxseed supplies about 534 calories (2,230 kJ), 41 g of fat, 28 g of fiber, and 20 g of protein.
Flaxseed sprouts are edible, with a slightly spicy flavor. Excessive consumption of flaxseeds with inadequate amounts of water may cause bowel obstruction. In northern India, flaxseed, called tisi or alsi, traditionally is roasted, powdered, and eaten with boiled rice, a little water, and a little salt.
Whole flaxseeds are chemically stable, but ground flaxseed may go rancid when left exposed to air at room temperature in as little as one week because of oxidation. Refrigeration and storage in sealed containers will keep ground flax from becoming rancid for a longer period. Under conditions similar to those found in commercial bakeries, trained sensory panelists could not detect differences between bread made with freshly ground flax and bread made with milled flax that had been stored for four months at room temperature. If packed immediately without exposure to air and light, milled flax is stable against excessive oxidation when stored for nine months at room temperature and under warehouse conditions, for twenty months at ambient temperatures.
Three natural phenolic glucosides, secoisolariciresinol diglucoside, p-coumaric acid glucoside, and ferulic acid glucoside, can be found in commercial breads containing flaxseed.
Flax fiber is extracted from the bast beneath the surface of the stem of the flax plant. Flax fiber is soft, lustrous, and flexible; bundles of fiber have the appearance of blonde hair, hence the description "flaxen" hair. It is stronger than cotton fiber, 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, and historically, for canvas and webbing equipment. Flax fiber is a raw material used in the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknotes, laboratory paper(Blotting and Filter), rolling paper for cigarettes, and tea bags.
The use of flax fibers dates back tens of thousands of years; linen, a refined textile made from flax fibers, was worn widely by Sumerian priests more than 4,000 years ago. Industrial-scale flax fiber processing existed in antiquity. A bronze-age factory dedicated to flax processing was discovered in Euonymeia.
Flax mills for spinning flaxen yarn were invented by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse of Darlington, England, in 1787. New methods of processing flax have led to renewed interest in the use of flax as an industrial fiber.
In a 100-gram serving, flaxseed contains high levels (> 19% of the Daily Value, DV) of protein, dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and dietary minerals. Ten grams of flaxseed contains one gram of water-soluble fiber (which lowers blood cholesterol) and three grams of insoluble fiber (which helps prevent constipation). Flax contains hundreds of times more lignans than other plant foods. Flaxseeds are especially rich in thiamine, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus (DVs above 90%).
As a percentage of total fat, flaxseeds contain 54% omega-3 fatty acids (mostly ALA), 18% omega-9 fatty acids (oleic acid), and 6% omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid); the seeds contain 9% saturated fat, including 5% as palmitic acid. Flaxseed oil contains 53% 18:3 omega-3 fatty acids (mostly ALA) and 13% 18:2 omega-6 fatty acids.
One study of research published between 1990 and 2008 showed that consuming flaxseed or its derivatives may reduce total and LDL-cholesterol in the blood, with greater benefits in women and those with high cholesterol.
A meta-analysis has shown that consumption of more than 30 grams of flaxseed daily for more than 12 weeks reduced body weight, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference for persons with a BMI greater than 27. Another meta-analysis has shown that consumption of flaxseed for more than 12 weeks produced small reductions in systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure. Flaxseed supplementation showed a small reduction in c-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) only in persons with a BMI greater than 30.
Flaxseed and its oil have repeatedly been demonstrated to be nontoxic and are generally recognized as safe for human consumption. Like many common foods, flax contains small amounts of cyanogenic glycoside; these are nontoxic when consumed in typical amounts, but may be toxic when consumed in large quantities of such staple foods such as cassava. Typical concentrations (for example, 0.48% in a sample of defatted dehusked flaxseed meal) can be removed by special processing.
The soils most suitable for flax, besides the alluvial kind, are deep loams containing a large proportion of organic matter. Flax is often found growing just above the waterline in cranberry bogs. Heavy clays are unsuitable, as are soils of a gravelly or dry sandy nature. Farming flax requires few fertilizers or pesticides. Within eight weeks of sowing, the plant can reach 10–15 cm (3.9–5.9 in) in height and grows several centimeters per day under its optimal growth conditions, reaching 70–80 cm (28–31 in) within 50 days.
In 2014, world production of flax (linseed) was 2.65 million tonnes, led by Canada with 33% of the global total. Other major producers were Kazakhstan, China, and Russia (table).
Flax is harvested for fiber production after about 100 days, or a month after the plants flower and two weeks after the seed capsules form. The bases of the plants begin to turn yellow. If the plants are still green, the seed will not be useful, and the fiber will be underdeveloped. The fiber degrades once the plants turn brown.
Flax grown for seed is allowed to mature until the seed capsules are yellow and just starting to split; it is then harvested in various ways. A combine harvester may either cut only the heads of the plants, or the whole plant. These are then dried to extract the seed. The amount of weeds in the straw affects its marketability, and this, coupled with market prices, determines whether the farmer chooses to harvest the flax straw. If the flax straw is not harvested, typically, it is burned, since the stalks are quite tough and decompose slowly (i.e., not in a single season). Formed into windrows from the harvesting process, the straw often clogs up tillage and planting equipment. Flax straw that is not of sufficient quality for fiber uses can be baled to build shelters for farm animals, or sold as biofuel, or removed from the field in the spring.
Two ways are used to harvest flax fiber, one involving mechanized equipment (combines), and a second method, more manual and targeting maximum fiber length.
Flax for fiber production is usually harvested by a specialized flax harvester. Usually built on the same machine base as a combine, but instead of the cutting head it has a flax puller. The flax plant turned over and is gripped by rubber belts roughly 20–25 cm (8-10") above ground, to avoid getting grasses and weeds in the flax. The rubber belts then pulls the whole plant out of the ground with the roots so the whole length of the plant fiber can be used. The plants then pass over the machine and is placed on the field crosswise to the harvesters direction of travel. The plants are left in the field for field retting.
The mature plant can also be cut with mowing equipment, similar to hay harvesting, and raked into windrows. When dried sufficiently, a combine then harvests the seeds similar to wheat or oat harvesting .
The plant is pulled up with the roots (not cut), so as to increase the fiber length. After this, the flax is allowed to dry, the seeds are removed, and it is then retted. Dependent upon climatic conditions, characteristics of the sown flax and fields, the flax remains on the ground between two weeks and two months for retting. As a result of alternating rain and the sun, an enzymatic action degrades the pectins which bind fibers to the straw. The farmers turn over the straw during retting to evenly rett the stalks. When the straw is retted and sufficiently dry, it is rolled up. It is then stored by farmers before extracting the fibers.
Threshing is the process of removing the seeds from the rest of the plant. Separating the usable flax fibers from other components requires pulling the stems through a hackle and/or beating the plants to break them.
Flax processing is divided into two parts: the first part is generally done by the farmer, to bring the flax fiber into a fit state for general or common purposes. This can be performed by three machines: one for threshing out the seed, one for breaking and separating the straw (stem) from the fiber, and one for further separating the broken straw and matter from the fiber.
The second part of the process brings 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 a refining machine.
Before the flax fibers can be spun into linen, they must be separated from the rest of the stalk. The first step in this process is retting, which is the process of rotting away the inner stalk, leaving the outer parts intact. At this point, straw, or coarse outer stem (cortex and epidermis), is still remaining. To remove this, the flax is "broken", the straw is broken up into small, short bits, while the actual fiber is left unharmed. Scutching scrapes the outer straw from the fiber. The stems are then pulled through "hackles", which act like combs to remove the straw and some shorter fibers out of the long fiber.
Several methods are used for retting flax. It can be retted in a pond, stream, field, or tank. When the retting is complete, the bundles of flax feel soft and slimy, and quite a few fibers are standing out from the stalks. When wrapped around a finger, the inner woody part springs away from the fibers. Pond retting is the fastest. It consists of placing the flax in a pool of water which will not evaporate. It generally takes place in a shallow pool which will warm up dramatically in the sun; the process may take from a few days to a few weeks. Pond-retted flax is traditionally considered of lower quality, possibly because the product can become dirty, and is easily over-retted, damaging the fiber. This form of retting also produces quite an odor. Stream retting is similar to pool retting, but the flax is submerged in bundles in a stream or river. This generally takes two or three weeks longer than pond retting, but the end product is less likely to be dirty, does not smell as bad, and because the water is cooler, is less likely to be over-retted. Both pond and stream retting were traditionally used less because they pollute the waters used for the process.
In field retting, the flax is laid out in a large field, and dew is allowed to collect on it. This process normally takes a month or more, but is generally considered to provide the highest quality flax fibers, and it produces the least pollution.
Retting can also be done in a plastic trash can or any type of water-tight container of wood, concrete, earthenware, or plastic. Metal containers will not work, as an acid is produced when retting, and it would corrode the metal. If the water temperature is kept at 80 °F (27 °C), the retting process under these conditions takes 4 or 5 days. If the water is any colder, it takes longer. Scum collects at the top, and an odor is given off the same as in pond retting. 'Enzymatic' retting of flax has been researched as a technique to engineer fibers with specific properties.
Flax fiber in different forms, before and after processing
Dressing the flax is the process of removing the straw from the fibers. Dressing consists of three steps: breaking, scutching, and heckling. The breaking breaks up the straw. Some of the straw is scraped from the fibers in the scutching process, and finally, the fiber is pulled through heckles to remove the last bits of straw.
In September 2009, it was reported that Canadian flax exports had been contaminated by a deregistered genetically modified cultivar called 'Triffid' that had food and feed safety approval in Canada and the U.S., however, Canadian growers and the Flax Council of Canada raised concerns about the marketability of this cultivar in Europe where a zero tolerance policy exists regarding unapproved genetically modified organisms. Subsequently, deregistered in 2010 and never grown commercially in Canada or the U.S., 'Triffid' stores were destroyed, but future exports and further tests at the University of Saskatchewan proved that 'Triffid' persisted among flax crops, possibly affecting future crops. Canadian flaxseed cultivars were reconstituted with 'Triffid'-free seed used to plant the 2014 crop. Laboratories are certified to test for the presence of 'Triffid' at a level of one seed in 10,000.
Flax is the emblem of Northern Ireland and displayed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. In a coronet, it appeared on the reverse of the British one-pound coin to represent Northern Ireland on coins minted in 1986, 1991, and 2014. Flax also represents Northern Ireland on the badge of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and on various logos associated with it.
Common flax is the national flower of Belarus.
In early versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale, such as "Sun, Moon, and Talia" by Giambattista Basile, the princess pricks her finger, not on a spindle, but on a sliver of flax, which later is sucked out by her children conceived as she sleeps.