The Grocery Store Gardener: Flax Seed
The Grocery Store Gardener is ever vigilant for new and different plants to grow from food. Flax seed and oil has been a super food for several years. Flax seed oil has a high concentration of Omega 3 oils. These unsaturated oils are some of the best for dietary reasons including their ability to lower the bad cholesterol. That is only recent interest in this super plant. The fibers have been spun into thread and then cloth for tens of thousands of years. The airy and delicate plant with its blue flower has been a garden favorite for years. And, don’t forget that it is also a great as a sprout on your salad.
Cold pressed oil from the seed is high in Omega 3 which is simple oil with healthful benefits. The issue with Flax seed oil is that it is highly perishable. The oxygen in the air will cause the oil to degrade quickly. Once pressed the oil must be used fresh. It will spoil in a few days. There has been success with extending the life of Flax seed oil through refrigeration. Still, this should be used in a short time.
Linseed oil has been used for thousands of years as a wood preservative. The drying qualities of this oil make it desirable. This oil will preserve and strengthen wood. This preservative oil is produced by heating the oil to about 300 degrees in a vessel that prevents air from getting to the hot oil. This changes the oil to the preservative. It is also no longer edible.
This one plant will be an interest to the gardener simply for its beauty. Flax has generated renewed interest with modern textile artists. Flax is an important nutritional health anti oxidant and cholesterol improving food. The baker likes adding nutritional ingredients for texture and accent beauty. Clearly this is a plant we should all enjoy for one reason or another. And, you can find this in your local grocery store.
Linen is the fiber from Flax. You will notice that “lin” pops up frequently when speaking about Flax. This is because family for this plant is Linaceae and the genus is Linum. Frequently Linen and Flax are used interchangeably.
It was until just a few hundred years ago the vegetable fiber of choice for producing thread and cloth. The fibers are quite strong. Quality was determined by how refined the fiber was extracted from the plant. Especially fine linen was reserved for the most important members of society.
It was so important that this plant spread from its native North Africa and Middle Eastern Mediterranean habitat to as far east as China and North through France and England at a pace similar to the migration of man. This happened before man could read and write. It was so important that the cloth was the equivalent of money. King Tutankhamun’s tomb had a pile of linen sheets waiting for his needs in the afterlife.
This was not the earliest known use for Linen fabric. That honor is about 25000 years older than this Pharaoh. Yes, the oldest found evidence for deliberately manipulated linen fiber is about 30,000 years old. This of course encourages numerous questions about how these materials were produced at such a remote time.
Growing and cultivating Flax is relatively easy. Flax is a long season plant. It is about 100 days from sprouting until harvest. Flax seed sprouts quickly. The spring gardener only needs to lightly sprinkle seed on top of the soil. Then gently draw an iron rake (yes, these do have a purpose in the garden) to gently toss with the soil surface. You will see growth within a week.
Flax doesn’t like sandy coarse soil nor does it like mucky wet heavy soils. It prefers a free draining organic rich loam. Flax prefers to grow in cool temperatures with full sun. Still this doesn’t rule out Florida, Texas and California. In these locations Flax is fall planted and harvested in late spring. Nearly all the Flax in the US is grown in the northern tier states as traditional spring planted agriculture. North and South Dakota, Minnesota and of course Wisconsin are where most of today’s agricultural fields are located. Russia is the leading agricultural producer of Flax for the world with an estimated 90%.
Here is south central Indiana I have found that growing containers so that they can be moved into light shade during the height of summer allows the plant to suffer less. It isn’t always the happiest of plants in the heat and humidity here. Freezing will kill plants so only spring planting is an option for this location.
To this day there is still concern with harvesting. Hand pulling is the optimal method for acquiring the best quantity and quality of linen. Linen fibers extend through the roots to the top of the plant. It is important to recover the longer fibers for higher quality linen. Modern cutting and baling machinery destroys long quality fibers for shorter less desirable fibers to reduce the cost and time.
Make the Choice
Farmers have to decide to grow Flax for the seed or for the linen fiber. The reason is that the linen fiber is at its best after flowering but before the seed ripens. The seed will be inedible if the plant is used for the fiber. However, if one desires to grow for the seed then the fiber is past optimum. The fiber can still be harvested. The fiber will be coarse and more brittle. Still, these farmers may use old mature fibers to make coarse cloth like burlap. They often use these tough fibers for rope too.
I want to encourage you to become a selective seed saver in the event you choose to be interested in ripe seed production. Flax seems to have some adaptive qualities that allow for more rapid habitat adjustment. By this I mean that this is a plant that quickly adapts. Collect seed from the most durable plant or from a couple of the best plants, when saving your seed for next year’s garden. Within just a few years you will notice that your saved seed reacts and grows better or more consistently because you have selected for that quality.
Beginning with seed from your local grocery store is the least expensive way to grow Flax. Look in the dry goods or bulk area first. There are times you may find this in the sprouted seed section or even the herb section. There seems to be some confusion as to the exact home for this seed. It can be used for so many different foods that it can be difficult to assign the perfect location in a grocery store. In my town’s food coop, as the popularity rose, the seed moved from the herb section to bulk dry goods.
There can be some difficulty harvesting the seed. The pods that contain the seed do not easily release their inhabitants. One enterprising writer suggests placing the seed heads inside of a pillowcase and driving the car over these bundles a time or three. Another article I found also suggested a pillow case. The difference is that this writer felt a rolling pin works just as well. Personal experience says to harvest the plant and hang upside down inside of a pillowcase to dry for several days. Well dried pods usually release the seed with a rolling pin. Drying the pods seems to make them more brittle and easier to crack.
The seed can then be screen and winnowed to remove the unwanted chaff. Only a small breeze is necessary to blow the chaff away. The seed is heavy so it drops directly back down into your large bowl. Store in dry containers and as long as you save enough for next year’s garden by all means mix some in your granola. Or, add some seed to the outside glaze on your homemade bread. Adding Flax seed allows you to introduce an additional healthful component to food. There is natural food fiber in the seed as well as the high Omega 3 oils. There is about 28 grams fiber in 100 grams of seed.
Let me encourage you to sprout some seed (as if one needs more reasons to grow this plant). Sprouting seed can be a bit more difficult though well worth the effort for the culinary experience. The seed coating on Flax will become a slippery gel often called mucilaginous. It feels pretty disgusting. Most sources don’t recommend a traditional “get the seeds wet and drain in the jar” method for sprouting. Most believe it is best to sprout Flax on moist towels or on the surface of a sterile media like vermiculite. A food grade plastic screen may be best. There is less chance of including the soil media or parts of the paper when eating.
Flax is a plant that has grown hand in hand with man. It helped man escape the need for animal derived clothing. Flax was a cottage industry that helped support families. The nutritional benefits of the seeds, oil and sprouts are surprisingly beneficial. Heated oil makes a superior natural wood preservative. On top of all this Flax is a beautiful carefree flower in the garden. And, it is blue, which is rather rare for a garden plant.
This is one of the best grocery store foods one can grow. It should be in everyone’s pantry. It is an ancient plant we must remember and teach to our children. In fact, this is a perfect plant for young children to grow. A small handful of Flax seed from the market will provide months of continuous enjoyment all for pennies. Encouraging young children to grow this will be as easy to grow as it is an avenue for educational interest.