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by Susan Wittig Albert
May 17, 2000

What herb is used to make cloth and paper; produces a hard, transparent varnish; has been used to treat boils, abscesses, and coughs, and burns; makes a high-protein animal feed; and was once believed to be a protection against sorcery?

You may have had difficulty solving this herbal mystery, for the herb flax (Linum usitatissimum) does not often make an appearance in modern herb gardens. But that's a mystery too, because the blue or white flowers are quite beautiful, and the plant (which may be cultivated either as an annual or a perennial) is easily grown from seed, producing slender green stalks that are from one to four feet high.

Flax fits beautifully into the old definition of an herb: a plant that is prized for its many uses, and for sheer delight. It is the oldest known textile plant (older even than cotton, according to most authorities), and is frequently mentioned in the Bible. In scriptural times, linen (the cloth woven from flax fibers) was used to make garments, towels, shrouds, nets, measuring-lines, flags, and more. To produce linen, the long plant stalks were soaked in water, then beaten until the fibers separated. Then the plants were laid to dry and whiten in the hot sun on the flat roofs of the houses. The stems were combed or "hackled" to remove the fibers, which were then spun into thread and woven into a supple, serviceable cloth. The process remains virtually unchanged today, and for centuries, flax was the most important plant in the crucial textile industries.

After the invention of the cotton gin in 1792, flax was no longer valued as a primary textile plant. Today, the long-stemmed variety is grown for fiber only in Asia and the Far East. Short-stemmed varieties of the herb are now grown most often for their valuable seed, called linseed. Linseed is pressed to yield a yellow oil that readily absorbs oxygen from the air and is used in the manufacture of varnishes, paints, and drying agents. If you're an artist or woodworker, you're familiar with the many uses of linseed oil. The material that is left after the oil is extracted, called linseed cake, is an important animal food supplement.

The seeds of flax have been used medicinally for centuries, primarily as a demulcent (an herb used to soothe irritation). According to Dioscorides (first century C.E.), flaxseed has the power of "mollifying all inflammation inwardly and outwardly." John Gerard (his Herball was originally published in 1597) suggested using flaxseed as a poultice to "draw forth splinters, thorns, broken bones, or any other thing fixed in any part of the body." Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the mid-seventeenth century, added that a flaxseed poultice could be used to soften tumors and "ripen and bring to a head boils and other swellings." He also recommended flaxseed tea to treat constipation. More recently, scientists are discovering that the linoleic compounds in flaxseed may be good medicine for hearts-watch for the reports that are beginning to emerge on this new research.

"A plant for use and delight"-that's flax. You may not be able to grow enough to make a dress or varnish your table. But you can celebrate this plant's many contributions to human health, happiness, and well-being by tending it in your garden and saying a special thank-you when you pass by.

© 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at

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