Flax – Lin
This week we were walking off the road between Le Val and Bras in search of interesting plants. Cistus salvifolius, in certain stretches, was covering the sides of the road. This is a white flowering Cistus with a lovely yellow centre. We were looking in particular for a blue Flax, Latin name Linum narbonense, English name ‘Beautiful Flax’. Initially we could not find it, but what we did find, again in profusion, was Linum campanulatum, a light, yellow-flowering Flax.
Finding Linum narbonense (see below) and L. campanulatum brought up the question in what way they were related to the Flax that is grown for its fibre and oil. It turned out there is no direct link. Flax plants are native from the Mediterranean region to India. The history of Flax is a very old one. The plant has been in cultivation since 5000 BC. The cultivation is thought to have started in Mesopotamia then onwards to Egypt. The mummies were wrapped in cloth made from Flax. Flax has probably derived from Linum bienne (Pale Flax), and annual Flax, with lilac flowers that grows in the region.
Through selection and cultivation Linum usitatissimum has been produced, which is not found in the wild. Today there are many cultivars selected for its particular purpose. If it is grown for its fibre, it is a robust, little branched plant, if it is grown for its seeds, it is a much branched specimen with as many flowers as possible.
Initially it was just used for its fibre. The Irish linen industry dates from 500 AD. In Flanders in the Middle Ages it became a very important industry and linen was exported to many countries. The word usitatissimum means ‘much used’ or ‘very useful’.
Linen is popular because it is so comfortable to wear, especially in warm weather. The flax fibers vary in length, shorter fibers are used for coarser fabrics, longer fibers for finer fabrics. You can recognise linen by the nodes in the fabrics. These nodes add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric. Linen has poor elasticity, which is one of the reasons it creases easily.
To produce linen from flax is labour intensive. When flax is harvested, it is pulled up by the roots or cut very close to the roots. The seeds are removed by a mechanical process called rippling or by winnowing. Next the fibers are loosened from the stalk by a method called retting. This process uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibers together. Natural retting takes place in tanks or pools. After retting, in autumn, scutching takes place. Scutching removes the wooden portion of the stalks by crushing them between two metal rollers, so that part of the stalk can be separated. The fibers are then removed. Next, the fibers are heckled, the shorter fibers are separated with heckling combs by combing them away, leaving behind only the long, soft flax fibers. These are ready to be spun into yarns.
There are many species in the family. Some are annuals like Linum bienne and Linum usitatissimum, others are perennials like the ones we found, Linum narbonence and Linum campanulatum. The plants belonging to the Flax family are herbs or small shrubs with simple untoothed, linear to lanceolate leaves. The flowers have 5 petals, the seeds are in 10-valved capsules.
Not only does it supply us with fibre from which linen is made, the seeds are pressed to produce Linseed Oil. Linseed Oil is used in the paint industry as a carrier oil for colour pigment. It is an oil beneficial to our health. The seeds contain high levels of dietary fibres, as well as lignans (act as anti-oxidants), micronutrients and Omega 3 fatty acids (essential fatty acids we cannot do without). Seed pulp is made into Linseed Cakes for cattle fodder.
The oil is used internally as a mild laxative and is sometimes combined with other anti-inflammatory medicinal plants for treatment of respiratory and gastro-intestinal inflammatory disorders. It works as a laxative due to its high fibre content, though excessive consumption without drinking a lot of liquid can result in intestinal blockage.
Walking away from the road we came across our ‘Beautiful Flax’, its name so apt. The plant is so graceful, the flowers have the colour of a Mediterranean sky.
Seeds can be roasted and eaten and unripe capsules can be eaten raw. The crushed seeds can be mixed with breakfast cereals or added to flour for making into bread, etc.
Bibliography: Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey, Christopher Grey-Wilson; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses – Deni Bown; Wikipedia – Flax; Voedingsleer – Ir. J. Lambrechts; Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart; van abrikozenpit tot zonnebloempit – Geert Devlieghere.