How to Grow Flax for Seeds and Fiber

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  • Flax can be grown for a nutritional seed harvest, and its fiber is used in the making of linen. Its history of use spans over 10,000 years
  • Flax can be grown in most parts of the U.S. Select a plot that gets plenty of sun with fertile, well-draining soil. It grows best in cooler weather, so early spring is an ideal time to start your planting
  • While flax provides you with more than one harvest opportunity, you will need to decide whether you’re going to harvest seeds or the fiber, as the highest quality fiber is obtained before the seeds form
  • Flaxseed is one of the best sources of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fat
  • Flax also contains a diverse mixture of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins E, K, C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and iron

By Dr. Mercola

Flax (Linum usitatissimum1) is among the most ancient of superfoods, with a history of use spanning over 10,000 years. Remains of flaxseed have been found in Stone Age dwellings in Switzerland, and in Egypt, where the ancient Egyptians used it in the manufacture of linen. Flax reached the U.S. in the 1800s with the arrival of European settlers.

Flax can be grown for a nutritional seed harvest, and its fiber is used in the making of linen. The plant grows to about 3 feet tall and has narrow, pale green leaves and small blue flowers.

Once the flower drops off, a seedpod forms in its place. Each seedpod contains anywhere from four to 10 seeds. According to Mother Earth Living,2 a small 4-foot-square plot of flax can provide enough seeds “for a batch of bread” and enough fiber to fashion a small basket.

Growing Basics

Thanks to its adaptability, flax can be grown in most parts of the U.S. Ideally, select a plot that gets plenty of sun with fertile, well-draining soil. Flax grows best in cooler weather, so early spring, once the risk of frost has passed, is an ideal time to start your planting.

You’ll need about 1 tablespoon of flaxseed per 10 square feet. The seeds are small, so the easiest way to sow them is to mix them with a small amount of flour, which helps separate them. Scatter the seeds across the surface of the plot, then use a rake to gently mix them into the top half-inch of the soil.

Water gently and keep the soil moist but not soaked until the seeds have germinated, which takes about 10 days. Once they’ve germinated, the plants tend to develop a robust root system and require less frequent watering. The plant matures to a height of about 3 feet. Adding a nitrogen-rich amendment to your soil can boost seed yield; otherwise, fertilizer is generally not needed.

Aside from L. usitatissimum, several other species of flax are also available. For example, perennial flax (L. perenne) grows to a height of just 1 to 2 feet and is hardy in zones 5 to 9. The cultivar “Alba” produces white flowers instead of blue. Golden flax (L. flavum), which is native to Europe, grows to be about 1.5 feet tall and has yellow flowers. It fares best in zone 5.

Will You Harvest Fiber, Seed or Both?

While flax provides you with more than one harvest opportunity, you will need to decide whether you’re going to harvest seeds or the fiber, as the highest quality fiber is obtained before the seeds form. Alternatively, you can settle for a coarser fiber, which will allow you to harvest seeds as well. Mother Earth Living explains:3

“If you wait until the seeds are ripe (about four months after planting), the fiber has become coarse. This difference in the timing of harvest is a major reason why commercial flax farmers produce either fiber or seeds but not both. Again, a hobby grower can compromise.

The fiber from mature plants is too coarse for weaving fine fabrics, but it’s acceptable for making baskets or other simple craft projects. To reap both seeds and fiber, harvest the flax about four months after planting. The leaves on the lower half or two-thirds of the stem will be turning yellow and dropping off.

Most of the seedpods will have turned gold or tan; if you shake them, the seeds will rattle inside. Grasp the stems, a handful at a time, right at ground level and pull them up, roots and all.

Shake the soil off the roots, lay a few handfuls of stems together side by side, and use rubber bands or string to secure them into a bundle. Hang the bundles in a warm place with good air circulation. After a few weeks, when the stalks are stiff and dry, you can thresh out the seeds.”

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How to Thresh Flaxseed

To get the seeds out you have to crush the seedpods open, a process known as threshing. While simple, it requires a bit of physical effort. Take a bundle of flax stems you collected and place them in a fabric bag. An old pillowcase will do fine.

Tie the opening shut around the stems and place the bag on a flat surface that will not be damaged by some pounding. Using a block of wood, rock or rubber mallet, beat the pods through the bag. Other strategies include using a rolling pin, or stomping on the bag with a hard-soled shoe.

Once the pods have been crushed open, shake the bag to loosen the seeds, then pour the contents into a bowl. When all the bundles have been threshed, it’s time to sift the seeds from the chaff. A coarse strainer or colander can be helpful.

How to Process Flax Fiber

While processing your own flax fiber can be a rewarding experience, it’s a rather complex, strenuous task and requires some investment in specialized tools. Your climate can also significantly influence the outcome, which is why flax for linen production is grown in areas with a wetter fall climate. Writing for Mother Earth Living, Rita Buchanan, a weaver and spinner, explains the basics:4

“The fibers in the stem of the flax plant form a thin layer between the woody core and the outer skin or epidermis that runs all the way from the roots to the tips. The fibers have already reached their full-length when the flax begins to flower, about two months after planting, but they are still thin, delicate and weak.

From flowering until the death of the plant, the fibers become increasingly thicker and stronger, but also more stiff and brittle … The first step, called retting, involves soaking or wetting the stems for a period of days or weeks to promote bacterial action, which separates the different layers of stem tissues and loosens the fibers.

After retting, the stems are dried again, then crushed between the wooden blades of a tool called a break or brake, which breaks the woody core into short bits that fall away from the mass of fibers.

Finally, the bundles are combed through metal-tined combs called hackles. The result: a smooth bundle of long, straight fibers called line flax and a pile of fluffy, tangled, shorter fibers called tow. The line flax is used to make crisp, glossy fabrics, and the tow is used for everyday goods.”

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

As with most plants, a number of insects and diseases can take their toll. To minimize the risk of plant disease, avoid growing flax in the same area for more than three years in a row. Also avoid growing flax in areas where you’ve previously grown potatoes or legumes to minimize the risk of the fungal disease Rhizoctonia solani. Following are some of the most common pests and plant diseases known to attack flax:5

  • Flax bollworm — The larvae of the flax bollworm moth feed on the flax flowers and seeds, effectively consuming your harvest. They look like small green inchworms with white stripes. Simply remove them from the plant wherever you find them.
  • Cutworms — True to their name, cutworms will eat the leaves of your plants. Sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the base of the plants to prevent cutworms, and pick off any found on the plants.
  • Aphids — To dislodge aphids, spray the plants with a strong stream of water. Sticky traps can also be used, and soapy water.
  • Fusarium wilt — A type of soil fungus, fusarium wilt kills seedlings, and causes mature plants to yellow and wilt. Infected plants need to be uprooted and destroyed (do not compost). Unfortunately, the fungus remains in the soil, so do not plant flax (or other plants known to be affected by fusarium wilt) in the area for at least three years.
  • Powdery mildew — Another fungal disease, powdery mildew causes the plant to drop its leaves and impacts its ability to produce seeds. Once it gains a foothold, it’s difficult to stop it from spreading. To prevent it, avoid planting your flax in areas that don’t drain well, as the wetness encourages growth of the fungus.

Health Benefits of Flaxseed

Flaxseed is one of the best sources of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fat. They also contain a diverse mixture of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins E, K, C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and iron. All of these are essential to maintaining various functions in your body and supporting good health.

Flaxseed is also a rich source of lignans, a plant compound with antioxidant and estrogen-blocking properties that have been shown to lower your risk of cancer.6 What makes flaxseed great in this respect is that it contains anywhere from 75 to 800 times more lignans compared to other fruits and vegetables.7

In one study8 involving 6,000 female participants, those who consumed flaxseed were 18 percent less likely to develop breast cancer. In another study,9 15 men who ate 30 grams of flaxseed per day had reduced levels of prostate cancer biomarkers, suggesting a lower risk of prostate cancer.

One tablespoon of flaxseed also contains 3 grams of dietary fiber —both soluble (20 to 40 percent) and insoluble (60 to 80 percent). Soluble fiber helps maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and feeds beneficial bacteria in your gut, while insoluble fiber helps maintain digestive health by binding water to your stools, allowing them to pass through your intestines quicker. This can help lower your risk of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and diverticular disease.

How to Use Flaxseed

Flaxseed can add a nutritious boost to just about any meal. For example, you can:

Use flaxseed in place of breadcrumbs in various recipes

Add to smoothies for additional flavor and fiber

As garnish on salad

Add to hummus to modify the taste while adding extra nutrients

Use as an egg replacement for pudding dishes

Enhance the nutritional profile of your soups without changing the flavor

Pour ground flaxseed into your favorite sauces to make them thicker

Mix flaxseed into your yogurt to enhance the flavor and add more nutrients

Contraindications

For all of their benefits, there are instances in which flaxseed are best avoided.10 For example, there have been reports of allergic reactions to flaxseed and flaxseed oil, causing hives, itchy palms, eyes, nausea, vomiting and stomach ache.

Flaxseed can also lower your blood sugar levels to an alarming level, especially when it is mixed with diabetic medication, so be careful if you have diabetes or are prone to hypoglycemia. The high amount of fiber in flaxseed may also increase the frequency of your bowel movements, so be sure to limit your use of flaxseed until you know how they affect your digestion.