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.
4.1 Health effects
4.2 Linseed oil
7.2 Harvesting for fiber
9 Preparation for spinning
9.2 Dressing the flax
Genetically modified flax contamination
11 Symbolic images
12 See also
14 External links
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
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
Tell Ramad in Syria. Use of the crop steadily spread, reaching
as far as
Germany by 5,000 years ago. In
India, domesticated flax was cultivated also at least 5,000 years
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.
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
Golden flaxseed meal
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
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
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
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
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
Three natural phenolic glucosides, secoisolariciresinol diglucoside,
p-coumaric acid glucoside, and ferulic acid glucoside, can be found in
commercial breads containing flaxseed.
A heckling shop used to prepare flax fibers
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.
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
A flax field in bloom in North Dakota, United States
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
2,234 kJ (534 kcal)
Pantothenic acid (B5)
Link to USDA Database entry
μg = micrograms • mg = milligrams
IU = International units
Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
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
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
Main article: Linseed oil
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
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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.
Main article: List of flax diseases
In 2014, world production of flax (linseed) was 2.65 million tonnes,
Canada with 33% of the global total. Other major producers
were Kazakhstan, China, and
Flax (linseed) production – 2014
FAOSTAT of the United Nations
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
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.
Harvesting for fiber
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
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.
De vlasoogst (1904) ("
Flax harvesting") painting by Emile Claus, Royal
Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium
A hackle or heckle, a tool for threshing flax and preparing the fiber
Flax tissues, Tacuinum sanitatis, 14th century
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.
Preparation for spinning
Stem cross-section, showing locations of underlying tissues: Ep =
epidermis; C = cortex; BF = bast fibers; P = phloem; X = xylem; Pi =
Threshing, retting, and dressing flax at the Roscheider Hof Open Air
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
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
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.
Dressing the flax
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.
Breaking breaks up the straw into short segments.
Scutching removes some of the straw from the fiber.
Heckling is pulling the fiber through various sizes of heckling combs
or heckles. A heckle is a bed of "nails"—sharp, long-tapered,
tempered, polished steel pins driven into wooden blocks at regular
Genetically modified flax contamination
Small flax plants
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
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.
Flax in New Zealand
International Year of Natural Fibres
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2010. Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 11
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Medicinal herbs and fungi
Tea tree oil
Doctrine of signatures
List of plants used in herbalism
Plant List: kew-2353429