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Flax

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Flax - Background and History

Flax, also known as linseed or flaxseeds (for its tiny, edible seeds) have a long history of human usage and eventual cultivation that dates back to before known recorded history. Flax grows throughout much of the world and is considered native to the Mediterranean until well into the hinterlands of Western Asia, along the way encompassing the Middle East and India. Flax even grows in some parts of Southeast Asia, while an altogether different species of plant that is also referred to as, but is not truly flax grows in New Zealand (Phormium tenax and Phormium colensoi, called 'New Zealand flax'). [1a]



Flax remains a highly valuable cash crop, harvested in many parts of the world, and employed for industrial purposes, with history of such usage possibly dating back to pre-historic times. The plant is an annual that grows to a maximum length of three feet and eleven inches tall, and is characterised by its slender, grass-like appearance. Flax sports thin, lanceolate leaves of a grey-green hue measuring some twenty to forty millimetres in length and three metres in breadth. Flax also possesses some degree of use for ornament due to its beautiful five-petalled inflorescence which sports a vivid pale-blue to almost purely iridescent blue colouration, with some species sporting bright red to iridescent red flowers, although this latter varietal is somewhat rare. The plant also sports tiny rounded fruits in the shape of dry capsules that grow long after the flowers have stopped blossoming. Measuring a slight five to nine millimetres in diameter, the capsules contain tiny seeds measuring between five to seven millimetres in length, and slightly resembling sesame seeds or apple pips, which are referred to as flaxseeds. [1] Much like the coconut, neem tree, and bamboo, all of the constituent parts of flax may be and have been employed by humans as food, as a source of fibre for weaving, as a source of medicine, and as raw material for the creation of tools and other practical articles.

Considered one of the oldest fibre crops in history, flax may have also been among the earliest of plants to have been cultivated by primitive cultures. The earliest extant mention of flax belongs to several periods in near simultaneous usage. Flax has been used by the Ancient Egyptians in about the exact same time the pre-Vedic Hindus of India, the Ancient Chinese, the peoples of Mesopotamia, and the early civilisations of the Fertile Crescent first employed flax, while other tribal civilisations such as the Maori of New Zealand employed like materials wholly different from true flax. Its usage may have been independent of these various cultures - that is, it may not have sprung due to influence by other societies through trade and commerce, but may have been due to independent design by these disparate cultures. Flax may have also been employed by the Ancient Greeks and the Aryan races which later migrated to the rest Europe and took the practice of processing and weaving flax with them. Archaeological evidence points out that flax has been used by these various cultures as a source of food, and as raw material for the creation of cloth since before the dawn of recorded history, although the cultivation of flax may have been begot near-simultaneously to its usage and processing, but the practical applications of the plant may have been one of the driving factors for its eventual cultivation. It can be assumed that flax was wildcrafted by hunter-gatherer societies that had begun to practice creating minor settlements, until it was later cultivated by proto-societies along with other plants such as grain and nuts. Aside from its industrial applications as a source of raw material for cloth, flax has also been employed as a foodstuff and even as a famine food by some societies. Nearly all societies have also employed flax for medicine, although its application tends to vary from culture to culture. Because of its wide range of applications, flax continues to be cultivated and employed for much the same purposes as it had several thousands of years ago, but thanks to the improvement of trade and commerce, even areas which originally had no access to flax is now able to employ it. [2]

Flax - Common / Popular Uses

The earliest (and still most common) use for flax is in employment as choice raw material for the creation of fabric. Depending upon the culture that employs it, there are various ways to convert flax into fibres that are viable enough for the creation of textiles. It is generally thought that very little has changed in the process of obtaining flax fibres, with much of the procedures still accurately similar to methods employed several thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution. When used as raw material for the creation of fibres, mature flax plants are harvested, dried, threshed (passed through a fork-like tool) to separate the pods from the stalks (the pods are separated and harvested for their seeds, which, depending on the processing, yields a product that is viable as a food source or as a means to create industrial products), threshed again to separate the stems from the stalks, and the stalks (from which the thick, luxurious, and highly durable fibres are obtained) finally soaked in water (traditionally, either from a pond or a flowing stream) in order to separate the thick outer 'straw' which rots away from the resilient fibre within in a process called retting. Depending on the desired quality of the finished product, flax can be retted on a shallow pool or a tub of water (which yields low quality fibres) or otherwise left to stand for a few days to several weeks in flowing river water (which yields higher quality fibres).



Prior to the Industrial Revolution, obtaining flax fibres was a manual task presided upon by trade experts called 'hacklers', which undertook the process of threshing, retting, and dressing flax. In its raw, dried state flax is pale yellow in hue, resembling very fine, blonde hair (from whence the term 'flaxen' originated). This can later be sold to individual dyers or otherwise dyed by hacklers themselves, and are then prepped, detangled, sorted, and sold to milliners or weavers. In the Middle Ages, the industry of processing flax was a large and burgeoning one, involving various artisans and experts which spanned farmers, harvesters, hacklers, dyers, spinners and weavers in an umbrella community that was dependent on each individual craftsman and worker. High-grade flax-based fibres are prime materials for the creation of high-quality linen fabrics and lace, while low-grade varieties are employed as raw material for the creation of rough-spun fabrics, cordage, and as fillers for things like pillows and mattresses, although the somewhat off odour of low-grade flax makes it unviable for such applications. [3]

Other than its use as raw material for fibre, the seeds of the plant itself was harvested separately, cleaned, and either processed or stored as foodstuff. When milled or ground into powder, flaxseeds became a highly nutritious and somewhat superior type of flour which could be made into various foodstuffs by itself, or otherwise integrated with grains. The consumption of flaxseeds in the belief that it is a health food is not something modern, but dates back to the time of Charlemagne, who mandated that all individuals under him partake of flaxseeds. An even earlier application dates back to pre-Vedic India, where it was a staple food often mixed or cooked with rice and eaten with salt or a dash of turmeric. Believed to be an excellent filling and nutritive meal, the practice of preparing flaxseeds with rice still persists in some parts of India to this day. From the Middle Ages until well into the Georgian Period, flaxseeds were even combined with silage or grain to create feed-mixes for livestock and work animals, or, if mixed with various other seeds, employed as bird feed. Nowadays, it is often eaten as a snack food, or otherwise incorporated into other foodstuffs in raw or processed form, either in its whole state, or as ground or milled flaxseeds. The consumption of flaxseeds is often prescribed for individuals who wish to increase their overall intake of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, as the seeds provide ample amounts of both compounds that are readily bioavailable. Flaxseeds are also an excellent source of fibre and are often prescribed for long-term consumption to remedy various bowel disorders, often consumed with the additional intention of weight loss. [4] Because flaxseeds contain high amounts of fibre that becomes bulk when consumed, it is always advised that individuals who consume or supplement with flaxseeds drink plenty of water to help hydrate and expand the bulk. This keeps one full without needing to take in much sustenance, while it eases the digestive tract and helps to facilitate in detoxification. Supplementing on flaxseeds is said to not only improve heart-health and health in general, but it is believed to even help individuals fight or prevent certain types of cancers (specifically prostate and breast cancer). [5] The presence of lignans - antioxidant compounds found in flaxseeds - is said to dramatically help prevent the onset of breast cancer if flaxseeds are consumed as early as the adolescent phase. When consumed as a supplement, flaxseeds have been said to help with sundry other diseases, with everything from sore eyes, dry skin, rheumatoid arthritis, and even anxiety and Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, although there is very little proven scientific evidence to back-up the efficacy of such applications. In earlier times, flaxseeds were employed as demulcents, emollients, and as a pectoral. Crushed flaxseeds were employed as a poultice, either by itself, or combined with either mustard, garlic, or ginger and employed in heated form as a remedy for muscular aches and pains. [6] A poultice made solely from flaxseeds alone was employed to treat various degrees of inflammation, and was noted as being an excellent analgesic. It has even been used to remedy sores and boils, as well as abscesses and general topical disorders, often when mixed with rosemary, lobelia, or sage. A tisane made from whole or ground flaxseeds was even given as a remedy for urinary tract infections, coughing, colds and flu. It was often prepared with the addition of honey and lemon or lime juice in order to become more palatable, and drunk in wineglassfuls several times throughout the day. [7]

When pressed, it yields a rich golden oil which became choice material for cooking oil or for the creation of industrial-grade drying oils that may be employed for the creation of wood-stains, varnish (as linseed oil), and as a base for the creation of industrial products such as linoleum. Cold-pressed linseed oil is safe for human consumption, but industrial-grade linseed oil that has been heat-extracted and treated with chemical solvents are absolutely unsafe for human use. The former was originally employed as a general cooking oil in by some early societies (although it was not preferred due to its tendency to go rancid fairly quickly), and as a beautifying oil used in the creation of early types of cosmetics, especially in the concoction of facial masks that was said to help remove blemishes and other skin imperfections. Nowadays, cold-pressed linseed oil is sold as a food-supplement meant to be incorporated into other foodstuffs or otherwise partaken of by itself in moderate amounts. Because of its popularity as a food supplement said to help improve heart-health, lower bad cholesterol levels, provide anti-oxidative benefits, and help supply the body with readily bioavailable omega-3 fatty acids, it has spawned a whole range of products, from oil capsules to beauty-products. [8] Because it contains the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids among vegetable oils, it is a prime choice for vegans and vegetarians who wish to supplement their diet with omega-3 without having to partake of fatty fish. The oil, believed to help prevent the hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), is also said to help lessen the inflammation and pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. When employed to provide pain-relief, it may be used topically along with a mix of one's choice of analgesic herbs and spices, or can otherwise be integrated as a supplement along with ginger root, garlic oil or garlic powder, and turmeric root. Flaxseed oil has also been suggested as a remedy for Type 2 diabetes, as a means to manage high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but very little scientific evidence of late supports the former two applications; one study stated that the supplementation of flaxseed oil does help individuals with high cholesterol but normal blood pressure, while individuals with high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure derived very little significant benefits. Prior to its modern supplementary applications, cold-pressed linseed oil was mixed with lime water or lime juice, yielding a product called 'Carron oil' which was employed for the treatment of burns, scalds, and various skin infections. [9] When taken internally in somewhat large dosages, it can be employed as a laxative, and was believed by eighteenth century herbalists to be excellent for the treatment of kidney stones. [10] For a time, pure linseed oil was employed as a veterinary purgative for livestock, and as an anthelmintic for dogs, although this practice is now exceedingly rare. [11]

Heat-extracted linseed oil on the other hand is not viable for human consumption but plays a (formerly) rather strong role in the creation of industrial products such as varnishes, wood finishes, early types of plastic, synthetic resins, binding agents, adhesives, and as raw material for the creation of linoleum - a type of flooring material that consists of a bonded mix of wood shavings or sawdust, cork, colouring agents, and linseed oil invented in 1855 by one Frederick Walton, with the height of its use dating to sometime between the 1950s to latter 1960s. There is a small yet slowly growing resurgence of the use of linoleum at present, primarily due to a revival of interest in all things vintage, but also due to its superior quality, durability, and perceived eco-friendliness (as compared to the more commonplace vinyl flooring). [12] Industrial linseed oil is also employed as a varnish, and is favoured by many woodworkers, especially those who specialise in restoring or imitating antiques due chiefly to the somewhat superior finish that linseed oil imparts on the wood, in contrast to most acrylic or polymer finishes available today. It is because of this feature that linseed oil is favoured not only by period-oriented artists and restorers, but also by luthiers who use the oil to recondition violins, mandolins, guitars, and other delicate instruments. Aside from being used as base material for varnishes, it is also employed in wood stains, and formerly, as a finishing coat on canvas. Linseed oil has even been used in the printmaking process, as base material or an ingredient in the creation of inks, or as a basis for the printing style called linocut. It must be noted however that linseed oil becomes highly flammable after sufficient oxidation has taken place and is something of a fire-hazard in workshops and poorly ventilated areas. Rags employed for the application of linseed oil have been known to spontaneously combust even without external influence which may cause it to take fire. Working with industrial linseed oil thus poses a significant hazard, and due care should be taken in its employment.

Flax - Esoteric / Magickal Uses

Because of its extensive usage as both a food-source and a source of industrial materials, flax also has a long-standing and highly reputed use for magickal applications, albeit the magick said to be associated with flax and the esoteric applications often interwoven with its practical ones tend to vary from culture to culture, with no general 'default' magickal application known at present. One of the still-extant magickal applications known for flax belongs to the Western practice of sympathetic and ceremonial magick, which may have had its earliest applications in Ancient Egypt (but such connexions are at best anecdotal). It is suggested by a small number of sources that the Ancient Egyptians may have used flax cords for cord magick, and fabrics made from flax as blank 'canvases' for the creation of talismans and charms. This practice however is more evident in Eurasian and European magick, especially in Nordic and Irish magick. Various superstitions were alluded to flax in Nordic and Irish magickal practices, many of these becoming eventual staples in English folk magick. The plant is said to be sacred to and favoured by the goddesses Frigga (Freya) and Hulda (Hel, not to be associated with Hel / Hela, Loki's daughter by the jotunn Angrboda), and was considered a highly sacred and powerful symbol of wealth, prosperity, and fertility. [13] Because the plant was sacred to Frigga, early Nordic superstition (later adopted by most of the areas which still bear some passing influence) subscribed to the idea that weaving or working with flax on a Friday (Freya's day) would result in bad luck. [14] Her association with Hulda, herself considered a latter patron of magick and a former grain-goddess made flax a very powerful magickal tool that conferred everything from protection to the capacity to bring blight to enemies if the proper usage and application is known.

These Nordic practices were later adopted into the body of magickal systems that would later comprise English magick, but what is seen today as the 'default' uses of flax is actually an amalgamation of various practices gleaned from the Germanic, Breton, Saxon, and Early Roman superstitions coupled with various endemic superstitions native to minor groups in various European areas, and, later, from areas in the New World influenced by European folklore and practice. From an anthropological perspective, there is no underlying unity in the respective esoteric practices ascribed to, or associated with flax, as there is a seeming variance in the associated magickal practices involving the plant, although it seems to be centred either on its propagation or on the overall health and abundance of a harvest - common markers of agriculturally-focused proto-religions. Practices attributing the capacity of flax to provide abundance and prosperity are evidenced by the New England practice of dancing upon a field of flax during midday at Candlemas in the hopes of making the flax grow well and all the surrounding harvests lush and bountiful. This practice would later persist in the old (and now possibly defunct) American practice of guests' kicking their feet as high as they can in a dance-like manner on weddings, in the hopes that the host's flax (in this regard, considered their luck or fortunes) would grow tall. [15] Its association with fortune persisted until well into these modern times, where it was considered a powerful money charm, its seeds being employed as a means to preserve and attract money. Folkloric practices suggest that flaxseeds be placed inside a money pouch or wallet to ensure an increase of wealth, or otherwise placed in one's shoes (presumably while one is at home) to protect against poverty, or while one is travelling to defend against theft. [16]

Flax's protective properties go beyond simply preserving wealth. In Scottish lore, bundles of flax, heath, and broom were tied unto a pole on All Hallows Eve and lit on fire. This ensuing torch would then be carried all around the village, the smoke from the conflagration said to drive away evil spirits, dispel blight and other ills, as well as confer protection to all the inhabitants. In the practice of Voodoo and Hoodoo, flaxseeds are the material of choice for protection. It is said that they make very powerful and impenetrable de-hexing and protection bags for children and the home. In these fields of practices, it is often encased in a juju bag or medicine pouch and either kept in a secure place at home, or otherwise worn close to one's person at all times, often by itself or combined with other protective herbs and spices. [17]

In most modern magickal practices and some new neo-shamanic fields of thought, flaxseeds are considered psychic-enhancing herbs, and is often blessed and partaken of, or otherwise encased in cloth bags and worn or carried upon one's person to obtain the best effect. The seeds have even been burnt as a type of incense on charcoal and the resulting fumes inhaled in order to (it is believed) elicit Visions or enhance one's innate psychic abilities, in spite of the fact that flaxseeds and flax as a whole contains no hallucinogenic properties whatsoever. [18] Some hybridised magickal practices such as Wicca and neo-shamanism, as well as some forms of revival Kemetic or revival Graeco-Roman magickal practices may sometimes use flax fibres for knot magick, especially in binding and hexing spells.

Flax - Safety Notes

Food-grade linseed oil and flaxseeds are considered safe for general consumption, although intake of flaxseeds with not enough water may cause stomach upset. As a general rule of thumb, one must never consume non-food-grade linseed oil (which is highly toxic) and flaxseeds (which can contain possible toxins or trace compounds that may be detrimental to health). It should be noted that some individuals may be allergic to flax and products which contain flaxseeds or linseed oil. With this in mind, it is best to avoid any and all products which contains flax if one has a know allergy to it. There is very little to no supporting evidence of the dangers of flaxseed or linseed oil supplementation or consumption for pregnant or nursing women, although it is advised that the intake be closely monitored and moderated, if not altogether ceased for the interim of the pregnancy just to be on the safe side. Flaxseeds and linseed oil supplements are deemed safe enough for children below ten years of age, but should not be given to infants. When purchasing flax-based supplements, it is best to opt for the organically grown varieties, as these tend to veer on the safer side especially if regular, moderate consumption is in mind.

Flax - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: yama ('flax') / yama zi ('flaxseeds')
Japanese: ama ('flax') / amani ('flaxseeds')
Korean: amaui ('flax') / amassi ('flaxseeds')
Sanskrit: uma / ksaumi / atasi
Hindi: alsi
Tamil: ali
Filipino: lino (lit. 'linseed') / buto-buto (lit. 'seedlings') / buto ng lino (lit. 'linseed')
French: lin / graine de lin
Spanish: lino / las semillas de lino
Italian: lino / semi di lino
German: flachs / leinsamen
English: flax / flaxseed / linseed
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Linum usitatissimum

References:

[1a] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax_in_New_Zealand

[1] [2] [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax#Medicinal

[4 - 5] http://www.flax.com/

[6 - 7] https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/f/flax--23.html

[8 - 9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linseed_oil

[10 - 11] https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/f/flax--23.html

[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linseed_oil#Linoleum

[13] [14] [15] [16] http://www.alchemy-works.com/linum_usitatissimum.html

[17 - 18] http://herb-magic.com/flax-seed.html

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. © herbs-info.com 2014

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