Flax, a genus of annual and perennial plants. Most flax is grown for fiber or for seed. A few species, however, are grown for their attractive flowers. Among these are the annual flowering flax, with red and pink flowers; the perennial blue flax; and the golden flax, a perennial with golden-yellow flowers. The botanical name for flax is linum, the first syllable of which appears in linen, linseed, linsey-woolsey, and lint.

Flax plants grown for their fiber (flax fiber) are called fiber flax while flax plants grown for their seed (flaxseed) are called seed flax. Flax fiber is used to make linen textiles and linen thread and twine. The most important product of seed flax is linseed oil, obtained by crushing flaxseed. Linseed oil is used to make printing ink and as a drying agent in paints and varnishes. Linseed cake, the residue left after crushing flaxseed, is a protein-rich livestock feed. Some straw from seed flax is converted into cigarette paper.

Flax is believed to have been grown in Europe as early as the Stone Age. It was known in ancient Egypt and China, and was later grown in Greece and Rome. Before the cotton gin was invented, flax was the most important plant fiber.

North Dakota usually produces about 80 per cent of the United States flaxseed crop; South Dakota and Minnesota account for virtually all of the rest.

The Flax Plant

The flax plant grows from two to four feet (60 to 120 cm) tall. The stalk divides into two or more branches a short distance above the ground. Each branch bears a number of slender, simple leaves, and has an attractive, five-petaled blue or white flower at the top of the stem. When ripe, the straw of the flax is light yellow, giving rise to the expression flaxen-haired. The rounded seed pod has five segments, each containing two glossy brown or mottled seeds.

Varieties of flax grown for fiber usually have tall, slender stems with very few flowers. These varieties ripen late and yield the longest, slenderest fibers. Those grown for seeds are shorter, have branching stems, and produce larger seeds.

FlaxFlax grows up to four feet high and has either white or blue flowers.
How Flax Is Grown

Flax grows best in temperate climates. Fiber flax thrives in moist or sandy loam, seed flax in drier soils. Fiber flax plants are usually sown closer than those grown for seed in order to induce the growth of taller stems. The seed is drilled into the soil and covered lightly with earth. Since flax shades the ground, the growth of weeds is retarded, and cultivation is therefore unnecessary. Flax diseases, such as rust and wilt, are controlled by planting disease-resistant varieties and by treating the seed with fungicides.

Harvesting and Processing

Flax grown for seed is usually harvested by combine immediately after the seed pods turn brown. Flax grown for fiber is harvested in about 90 days, after the leaves have fallen and the stems have turned yellow or brown. It is important to harvest fiber flax before the seed capsules ripen, for mature plants produce coarse fiber.

Flax belongs to the Linum genus of the flax family, Linaceae. Flowering flax is L. grandiflorum; blue, L. perenne; golden, L. flavum; seed and fiber flax, L. usitatissimum.