Plant 300

Linum species (Linaceae)


You may have seen flax growing in fields around the British Isles, where it is easily recognisable from the road even when passing at speed. Its mass of flowers turns the entire field a luminous sky-blue. Numerous products are derived from Linum usitatissimum, including food, fibre and household items, which justify its specific name, meaning 'most useful'.

The genus is found in temperate areas, and consists of herbaceous perennials with wiry stems, narrow leaves and five-petalled flowers. These are typically blue, although red-, pink-, and yellow-flowered species exist. Linum usitatissimum, which was domesticated thousands of years ago from Linum bienne, is unknown in the wild.

Historically, flax was an important fibre crop in the British Isles, possibly grown as far back as the Bronze Age, and mentioned in the Domesday Book. The fibres are found just below the surface of the stem, and are part of the phloem tissue of the living plant. They are extracted by a series of processes, beginning with retting, soaking the stems in water, and followed by scutching and hackling, techniques that separate the usable fibres from the rest of the material.

Fabric produced from flax is strong and durable. In former times, when the choice of fibres was restricted to flax, hemp or wool, Linum was the ideal source of material for ropes, sails and clothing. However, Linum is no longer a dominant fibre crop. Since the 1800s, new machinery made it possible to process efficiently the shorter fibres of cotton (Gossypium sp.) into textiles, whilst numerous, hardwearing synthetic fibres were developed during the twentieth century.

Today, in the British Isles, Linum usitatissimum is grown solely for seed production; linseeds are popular health foods, rich in omega-3 oils and fibre, but are also fed to livestock. Other common uses of linseed oil are as wood preservative, paint additive and an ingredient in the manufacture of linoleum. People who use such products are perhaps unaware of their connection with those fields of blue flowers.

You hear the echo of the plant's scientific name, Linum in the items it gives us: linoleum, linseed and linen. Linen in particular has come to be used as a general textile description, for example, bed linen and table linen, whether or not they are made from flax fibres. In this way, Linum usitatissimum has rooted itself firmly into our cultures, regardless of the decline in flax as a commercial crop.

Further reading

Muir AD and Westcott ND 2003. Flax. The genus Linum. Taylor & Francis.

Ruth Calder