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The Facts on Growing Flax from Seed

Fields of flax grown for seed and fiber production looks like the blue sky has fallen to earth when they're in bloom, and then green fading to yellow as the foliage and seed pods ripen. Then you have ornamental flax, with Linum perenne bearing the trademark blue flowers, and the outrageous vivid scarlet Linum rubrum.

While we know that the silky, cream-colored fibers from flax's processed stalks are the inspiration for the term, "flaxen hair" as used to describe blonde tresses, we think it's kind of fun to broaden the definition to incorporate flax's more colorful hues.

So next time you're at the mall, duck into Hot Topic and compliment all the goth kids with their blue, scarlet, green, and yellow flaxen locks.

A Brief Look at Flax's Long, Long, Long History

Linen is made from flax, which is the most durable of all the natural fibers. Modern fiber spinners love to mix it in with wool, silk, or hemp, and covet its attractive luster and silky feel. When it's tightly woven, it makes heirloom-quality...well, linens.

As durable as it is as a textile fiber, few cultivated plants have endured as long a history as flax. We can trace its agricultural history back as far as 7000 years. While it's been cultivated for different uses over the millennia, flax is in and of itself an heirloom, whether or not it's been turned into somebody's grandma's tablecloth

North Dakota State University published a timeline celebrating flax's cultural milestones:

7000 BCE: In the Dawn of Agriculture, which began in the Fertile Crescent, flax was among the first crops ever cultivated. Moderns scientists have found and carbon dated preserved flax seeds from as far back as 8000.

6000 BCE: Archaeologists have discovered and dated scraps of woven linen cloth from this area in the Dead Sea region.

5000 BCE: The Egyptians get on the linen bandwagon, though technically bandwagons (or at least wheels used for transportation) didn't come along until about 3200 BCE. They didn't even have camels until at least 1500 BCE.

4000 BCE: Flax textiles began appearing in the northern and western European timelines. Archaeologists discovered artifacts made from flax (artiflax?) while excavating sites where the mysterious Swiss Lake Dwellers once...dwelled.

1400 BCE: Egyptians used linseed oil and linen cloth to make really awesome Halloween decorations out of dead people.

1000 BCE: Flax seeds themselves become a staple in Greek and Jordanian baked goods.

500 BCE: Hippocrates discovered that flaxseed (oil or whole, we're not sure) makes a fantastic laxative (flaxative!!!) and the Phoenicians, who used linen sails, are thought to have introduced flax to Flanders and Britain.

800 CE: Charlemagne, who pretty much went bonkers over every plant he encountered, encouraged the widespread cultivation of flax throughout his empire.

Flax's history continues from there, contributing to everything from food to fabric to lubrication and fine art oil paints. But in the 1800s, the invention of the cotton gin put flax fiber production on notice...and it took a backseat from then until the 1990s, when flax seeds rebounded as a healthy food source thanks to their high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and lignans, both of which are known to fight cancer.

Today, commercial seed flax isn't suitable for textile harvest, and vice-versa.

Flax as a Garden Ornamental

In North America, the expansive plains in central Canada and the U.S.'s northern Midwest produce most of the world's commercial seed flax. The Europeans specialize in the longer-stemmed textile varieties. You, on the other hand, can specialize in ornamental blue or scarlet flax right in your own backyard.

The two most popular garden-variety flax plants include the perennial blue flax (Linum perenne) and the annual scarlet flax (Linum grandiflorum rubrum). They're both grown in a similar fashion, in spite of the former regrowing from its roots each year. Flax has an upright, branching growth habit, with narrow, alternating, one to two-inch leaves that may be green or gray-green. The seed pods are about the size of a petite pea.

Flax attracts honeybees and the stray bumblebee. You might also spot the occasional Ravelry fiber art forum junkie; don't worry, they're harmless if unprovoked. Just watch out for those needles and crochet hooks.

Scarlet Flax (Linum grandiflorum rubrum)

Native to Mediterranean Europe and North Africa, scarlet flax is also known as red or crimson flax. Bright red, cup-shaped flowers resemble those of poppy plants; each bloom has broad, satiny petals, usually with dark centers. Scarlet flax's pollen is blue—not unusual in the plant kingdom—lending to the dark shades of the plant's reproductive organs.

  • USDA Growing Zones: Hardy annual in zones 3 to 10
  • Height: 1' to 2' tall
  • Width: 1/2' to 1' spread
  • Bloom Period: April to September

Blue flax (Linum perenne)

Blue flax calls southeastern Europe and western Asia home and tolerates humidity, heat, and drought a bit better than does scarlet flax. It's most often grown as a densely-planted ground cover from broadcast seeds. L. perenne's charming, sky-blue flowers with bright yellow centers look great as mass plantings, serving as a tall groundcover in sunny, neglected garden areas.

  • USDA Hardiness Zones: Perennial in zones 5 to 8, elsewhere it's grown as a self-seeding annual
  • Height: 1' to 2' tall
  • Width: 3/4' to 1.4' spread
  • Bloom Period: Mid-May through early September

Individual flowers on the blue flax plant die back within a single day, but the plants themselves continue to bloom throughout the season. You can deadhead "shabby" plants with pruners, cutting them back within 4 to 6 inches from the soil surface.

General Tips for Growing Ornamental Flax

Flax is slow to germinate, sometimes taking a whole month to get rolling. Optimal germination temperatures are between 65°F to 70°F. Don't cover them up with more than 1/16" soil, since they need sunlight to wake them up.

Flax seeds are best sown in fall, either surface-sown or raked into light, medium-quality, clump-free soil. It does best at 6.0 to 6.5 pH. We recommend covering your backside and scattering some in fall, and some again in spring because the seed's long germination period can make them susceptible to rot in late fall or mid-winter warm spells.

Flax re-seeds easily at the end of each season, and if you want to curtail naturalization, the seed pods are easy to spot and collect. And there's no reason you can't use them as you would seeds from production varieties, though you'd have to grow a lot of plants to make a harvest worthwhile.

For best flower production when growing flax from seed, keep your flax patch evenly moist. As long as it gets occasional water, though, you can use it to cover up neglected spots in your yard.

Troubleshooting

  • Flax tends to get a bit topheavy and might lean sideways like a drunken sailor. Consider growing it near a windbreak.
  • Flax isn't particularly susceptible to diseases in the home garden environment, but keep an eye out for rust and fusarium wilt.
  • Grasshoppers, caterpillars, potato aphids, and cutworms like to munch on flax, but no more so than on other plants.

Harvesting Flax at Home

Flax isn't a good cut flower, especially given that individual blooms don't last long. But for those who want to know how to take advantage of their fibrous stems or nutritious seeds, we found Wild Fibre, a fun website out of England, where it's a popular textile crop.

  • Pull the plants out of the ground when the plants are mostly golden, with just a touch of green.
  • Bundle the plants into shocks (or "stooks") and set them upright to dry. Try placing them over a triangle of bamboo sticks to help keep the air circulated in the centers.
  • Use a fine-toothed comb to remove the seed pods. (A traditional harvesting comb is called a "ripple.")

A patch roughly 5 feet by 16.5 feet could yield up to 350 grams of flax fiber, which is more than it seems considering that home spinners tend to use small amounts of flax to add luster and tensile strength to homespun thread and yarn. Check out Wild Fibre for tips on processing flax for fiber. There's no reason why you can't try harvesting "garden variety" flax from your own garden patch, or on a homesteading scale, especially if you like the idea of plants that produce both fiber and seed. Just don't expect high yields of either.

Now You've Got the Facts...

...Contact Seed Needs to order your flax! Okay, that was cheesy (big surprise...have you read our other blog posts?) but as usual, we love to nerd out on all things botanical.

Our ornamental flax seeds come in standard, home-use packets, but we can always put together custom quantities if you want more coverage in your garden. There's no reason you can't enjoy a beautiful landscape while growing a supply of flax seeds for your own use and to feed your local wild birds. And if you want to mess around with your fiber crafts, knock yourself out. Just because a plant variety isn't scalable to an industrial level doesn't mean you can't experiment with growing flax from seed at home.

That's pretty much the whole point of growing heirloom plants, anyway. Speaking of, all of our vegetable, herb, and ornamental seeds are non-GMO and, wherever possible, open-pollinated. And they're always fresh; we source our seeds from the most-reputable and sustainable suppliers we can find, and only stock as much seed as we can expect to sell in a single year.

We keep our inventory in climate-controlled storage because old, dusty, manky seeds lose their viability quite quickly after two or more seasons.  And if you do have trouble with our products, our family business is here to make it right...as we have been since 2006!

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