The common flax plant, or Linum usitatissimum L., is a delicate and graceful annual that stands about 3 feet high and produces attractive blue flowers. Its Latin name means "most useful," and for good reason. Though technically a wildflower, flax is an has been cultivated commercially and privately for thousand of years for a wide variety of important uses.
Common flax was one of the earliest domesticated plants. The cultivation of flax is believed to have originated in the region between the eastern Mediterranean and India. Flax is known to have been used by the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans for food, clothing and medicine. The Puritans brought flax to America, where it was first cultivated by colonists on small farms, and eventually became an essential commercial crop that was grown throughout the Midwest. Today, most flax in the U.S. is grown in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, while the largest exporters of flax in the world are Russia, France and Poland.
The fibers inside the stems of flax plants are used to make linen. One of the oldest known fabrics in the world, linen is durable, lightweight and airy. Before the mass production of cotton, it made the best alternative to wool and animal hide in hotter months and warmer climates. Linen has been used across history for everything from bedclothes, to sails, to wrappings for Egyptian mummies. One interesting thing to note: the U.S. dollar is not made out of paper at all, but is a fabric blend of 25 per cent linen and 75 per cent cotton.
Food and Medicine
Because of their purported health benefits, the seeds of flax plants are currently used in a variety of health foods. Flax seeds can be eaten raw or cooked, cracked or whole, and can be ground into flour. The are often sprinkled on top of bread, cooked into foods like chips, muffins and cakes or added to granola cereal. Flax seeds contain high amounts of Omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, which are believed to reduce cholesterol, boost the immune system and lower the risk of heart disease. They also have potassium, magnesium, fiber and protein, and make a good natural laxative.
Interestingly, although it is edible, flax seed oil (also called linseed oil) is seldom used for culinary purposes. Instead, it has a variety of industrial uses. It serves as a pigment binder for oil paint and a drying agent for paints, lacquers and inks. It is sometimes used as a wood finish, and is combined with cork to make linoleum.
Once oil is cold pressed from flax seeds, the husks are often used as feed for chickens and other livestock. The seeds provide animals with much needed fiber and protein. Eggs from chickens that were fed flax seeds are often purported to be high in omega fatty acids and have added health benefits.