What a useful plant flax (Linum usitatissimum) is. In fact, Linnaeus (for it is he who named it, thus the name complete with the author, should be Linum usitatissimum L.) recognised the fact and ‘usitatissimum’ means ‘most useful’. This is the plant that provides us with linen (you can see the similarity in the name) and also with linseeds which today should be a significant part of our diets for their short-chain Omega-3 fatty acids. Linseed oil was known, in my childhood primarily as an ingredient in putty (to glaze windows) and as the main ingredient for lino (linoleum) the ubiquitous floor covering between its invention in 1855 and the 1950s, which is before my time but I still remember it.
Although most of the fields around here are planted with potatoes, wheat, oil-seed rape and maize, there are a few others crops and a few fields of linseed or flax. Flax is an annual crop with pale blue flowers that shimmer in the sun (not that it was sunny the other day) and that drop quite early in the day. They make a lovely display and contrast with other, duller crops.
Linoleum was invented in 1855 by Frederick Walton who noticed the rubbery film on a can of linseed oil-based paint. He combined the linseed with sawdust and layered it on canvas to make the famous floor covering though his main aim was to make waterproof fabric (oilcoth). He opened his factory in Staines (Middlesex) in 1869 but it was the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, that became the main manufacturer of ‘lino’ by 1877, especially the Nairn company which, I think, still maufacture floor coverings – the name rings a bell. (I checked and they closed in the 1880s – shows my age!)
The name was created from a combination of ‘linum’ (‘flax’) and ‘oleum’ (‘oil’).
Flax is one of the most important and oldest fibres cultivated by humans and has been traced back 30,000 years. It was cultivated in China and the Mediterranean region 5,000 years ago and was a symbol of purity for the ancient Egyptians. The long, strong fibres from the stems are flexible and pale in colour – hence the flaxen hair of blondes – and have a multitude of uses, according to their coarseness, from ropes to cloth and paper, such as banknotes and tea bags. As a crop, it is easy to grow, having few pests, but grows best in light soils and is not suitable for heavy clays. The soil around here is light, Fen soil so ideal.
As a foodstuff linseeds have become very popular because of their Omega-3 fatty acids which have a multitude of good effects, from decreasing inflammation to helping with depression apparently. They are also nutritious, with lots of minerals and vitamins as well as being 20% fibre and 20% protein, but I often wonder about how much we actually absorb if we just sprinkle them in our food since they are so slippery and hard to bite. In fact they are second only to sesame seeds when it comes to getting stuck between your teeth. When ground, they should be used pretty quickly.