Is flax the most amazing, wonderful and most useful plant of all time? The answer to that is a resounding “yes.” Let’s look at some of the incredible attributes of this most versatile plant and examine some astounding ways that this little plant with the pretty blue flowers has influenced humankind, our diet, our health, how it has clothed us and housed us and influenced our development for 30,000 years.
And we’ll start with its name: the Latin name for flax is linum usitatissimum, from the Greek, linos, meaning, well, flax, and usitatissimum meaning, “most useful,” a hint about its multifaceted applications. In Greek mythology, Linus was the name given to the flaxen haired son of Apollo and Calliope and taught music to his brother Orpheus and to the mighty Herakles!
Did you know that we have flax to thank for the word “line”, and all other words that are part of that word’s lineage? The ancient Greeks used a taut piece of linen thread to determine a straight line, and the name stuck.
The word lining comes from flax, as the lining on coats was usually made of linen, and even the French word lingerie exists because of the linen used in these garments. So now we know what Victoria’s secret really is!
Because of the root lin, flax is also commonly referred to as linseed, graine de lin in French. You will see the root lin in many products derived from the flax plant. Linen of course is the textile woven from the fibres of the flax plant. Basket weaving 101 has been around for a long time; linen fibres have been found in archaeological digs dating back 30,000 years, indicating that ancient men and women wove these fibres for string, ropes, baskets and possibly clothing, and flax is credited with helping our forebears make it through the ice age. Of course linen has come a long way since those caveman days, and has been used by the Egyptians for wrapping mummies, in book making and bookbinding.
Irish linens are still the pride of Northern Ireland and the flax flower adorns the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Linseed oil, an industrial grade of flax seed oil is the oil that painters woodworkers and cabinetmakers use as it dries and finishes without shrinking and acts as a water repellent. How linseed oil dries – with a rubbery, flexible “skin” led to its being developed into linoleum (literally flax+oil), by Englishman Frederick Walton in 1865. Originally made by mixing linseed oil with pine resin, cork and wood dust, cotton and burlap was repeatedly dipped into the thickening mass until the desired thickness was achieved and the resulting linoleum hardened. The rmanufacturing process of linoleum has changed over the years, but it’s basically the same, and linoleum flooring is still considered one of the most durable floor coverings available. Plus as it is made from natural ingredients, it is biodegradable and easy on the environment, and is a renewable resource that can be planted and harvested over and over; in short, a “green” choice and since it is made from organic compounds it is largely hypo-allergenic and highly desirable still in institutions like hospitals and health care centres.
Linoleum also appears in the art world: linocut is a printmaking technique favoured by artists like Picasso and the great English/Canadian Sybil Andrews.
Here’s how to make your own linocuts, you can thank the flax plant.
Flax seed, whole or ground into meal, and flaxseed oil also offer amazing health benefits. Check out what the worlds healthiest foods has to say:
“The first unique feature of flax is its high omega-3 fatty acid content. Among all 127 World’s Healthiest Foods, flaxseeds comes out number one as a source of omega-3s! The primary omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds is alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. The ALA in flaxseed has found to be stable for at least 3 hours of cooking at oven temperatures (approximately 300F/150C), which makes it available after ground flaxseeds have been added to baked goods like muffins or breads.
The second unique feature of flaxseed is its lignans. Lignans are fiber-like compounds, but in addition to their fiber-like benefits, they also provide antioxidant protection due to their structure as polyphenols. The unique structure of lignans gives them a further health-supportive role to play, however, in the form of phytoestrogens. Along with isoflavones, lignans are one of the few naturally occurring compounds in food that function as weak or moderate estrogens when consumed by humans. Among all foods commonly eaten by humans, researchers rank flaxseeds as the number one source of lignans. Sesame seeds come in second, but contain only one-seventh of the total lignans as flaxseeds. To give a few further examples, sunflower seeds contain about 1/350th as many lignans, and cashews nuts contain about 1/475th as many lignans as flaxseeds.
A third unique feature of flaxseeds is their mucilage (gum) content. “Mucilage” refers to water-soluble, gel-forming fiber that can provide special support to the intestinal tract. For example, gums can help prevent the too rapid emptying of the stomach contents into the small intestine, thereby improving absorption of certain nutrients in the small intestine. Arabinoxylans and galactoxylans are included within the mucilage gums found in flaxseeds.
This combination of features—omega-3 fatty acids, high-lignan content, and mucilage gums—is a key factor in the unique health benefits of flaxseeds. The specific areas of health benefit described below all draw in some way from this unique combination of nutrients not found in other commonly eaten nuts or seeds”-
The flax plant thrives in cooler climates, perhaps that is why as Canadians, we should be proud to note that Canada is the number one producer of flax in the world, producing over 368,000 metric tonnes in 2011. So flax is good for the economy too!
To get in on the action and really start flaxing your muscles, start with a flax muffin and take it from there.