line_gbg68.gif (1697 bytes)

line_gbg68.gif (1697 bytes)

Common flax - Linum usitatissimum

The common flax (Linum usatissimum) is a beautiful plant, likely to appear, with the hemp and the canary, as mere weeds in the garden of the bird fancier, because the waste of the cages must be sometimes scattered. As regards the flax, it is a weed of the world, for it occurs everywhere as a wilding, not only in Europe and Northern Africa and Asia, but in the southern hemisphere, having been carried by the hand of man wherever he has carried merchandise.

It is a tall, slender, exceedingly neat plant, with narrow lanceolate leaves and flowers, crowning the stems in a loose corymb, conspicuous for their large size and their bright blue colour. The petals are obovate and the sepals are pointed. The oily seeds are contained in a depressed globular capsule; they are of a rich dark brown colour, glossy, of a peculiar flavour, and in their medical uses decidedly laxative. It is not often they are given to caged birds, but every one who has the care of these interesting creatures should keep a few "linseeds" in the store-room in case of emergency. Birds that are fed almost exclusively on canary and hemp, with perhaps insufficient vegetable food, may be benefited by an occasional treat of two or three of these oily laxative seeds.

The oil that is pressed from linseed is of great importance in the arts, one of its uses being to supply the principal material for printers' ink. Indeed, the flax has done more for literature than any other plant that can be named. The linum, or lin, supplies from its stem the fibre for linen, and from linen waste is made paper. The ink and the paper may therefore be said to be derived from one and the same source, and this plant is the commonest thing in the world, and grows everywhere, while as to its beauty, we may search far ere we shall find a plant of its own range of habit and colour that can surpass it. To compare it with the plumbago is not unfair, and we incline to the opinion that in the comparison the flax will have the best of it.

Common flax is raised as a farm crop in the U.S. chiefly for the oil expressed from the seeds (linseed or flaxseed oil). The fiber of the stem, from which linen is made, does not attain the perfection here that it does abroad; consequently, flax-growing for linen production does not amount to much in the U.S. (as of 1963). For New Zealand flax, see Phormium tenax.


  • Other Common Names: Ama, Annual Flax, Chih Ma, Common Flax, Cultivated Flax, Hu Ma, Kahtan, Keten, Kettan, Kittan, Lin, Linaza, Lino, Linseed, Linseed Flax, Linum usitatissimum
  • Range: Usually attributed to originate in the Mediterranean region of Europe. Belgium; Britain; China; Egypt; Germany; India; Iraq; Kurdistan; Mexico; Peru; Spain; Turkey; USA; Venezuela

  • Habitat: Prefers a light well-drained moderately fertile humus-rich soil in a sunny sheltered position. Prefers a cool moist climate.
  • Composition: The envelope or testa of the seed contains about 15 per cent of mucilage. The seeds themselves contain in the cotyledons and endosperm from 30 to 40 per cent of a fixed oil, of a light yellow colour, and about 25 per cent proteids, together with wax, resin, sugar, phosphates, acetic acid, and a small quantity of the glucoside Linamarin.

Seed (Fresh weight)

  • Water: 6.5
  • Calories: 498
  • Protein: 19
  • Fat: 35.5
  • Carbohydrate: 35.4
  • Fiber: 6.8
  • Ash: 3.5
  • Calcium: 220
  • Phosphorus: 415
  • Iron: 23
  • Vitamin A: 0.02999
  • Thiamine: 0.17
  • Riboflavin: 0.15999
  • Niacin: 1.4

Notes: The figures given here are the median of a range given in the report. Iron had an especially large range, from 2.7 - 43.8.

Flaxseed provides approximately 50% more omega-3 oils than the amount available from fish oil. The species name "usitatissimum" means "most useful". This truly useful plant has been cultivated for over 7,000 years. In the 8th century, the French king Charlemagne passed a law requiring citizens to consume Flaxseed so that they would be healthy subjects. The fibers of some of the species of this plant are used to make paper, linen and twine.


History and Culture

The cultivation of flax reaches back to the remotest periods of history. Linen from flax was used to wrap mummies in ancient Egypt, and flax seeds as well as the woven cloth having been found in Egyptian tombs. It has been cultivated in all temperate and tropical regions for so many centuries that its geographical origin cannot be identified, for it readily escapes from cultivation and is found in a semi-wild condition in all the countries where it is grown.

Many traditions are associated with this useful plant. Flax flowers were believed in the Middle Ages to be a protection against sorcery. The Bohemians have a belief that if seven-year-old children dance among Flax, they will become beautiful, and the whole plant was supposed to be under the protection of the goddess Hulda, who, in Teuton mythology, was held to have first taught mortals the art of growing Flax, of spinning, and of weaving it. [More below]

Medicinal and Nutritional uses

Flax seed has a long history of medicinal use, its main effects being as a laxative and expectorant that soothes irritated tissues, controls coughing and relieves pain. The seed, or the oil from the seed are normally used.

The seed is analgesic, demulcent, emollient, laxative, pectoral and resolvent. The crushed seed makes a very useful poultice in the treatment of ulceration, abcesses and deep-seated inflammations. An infusion of the seed contains a good deal of mucilage and is a valuable domestic remedy for coughs, colds and inflammation of the urinary organs. If the seed is bruised and then eaten straight away, it will swell considerably in the digestive tract and stimulate peristalsis and so is used in the treatment of chronic constipation.

Flaxseed is by far the richest source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the parent compound of the omega-3 fatty acids. In comparison, fish contain only trace amounts of ALA and fish oil can adversely affect the taste and odor of food products.

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid because it cannot be synthesized by the body. Research indicates that ALA improves immunity, the body's ability to defend itself against foreign substances. Studies have also shown that alpha-linolenic acid may lower the risk of stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Both the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization recommend an increased daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

The oil in the seed contains 4% L-glutamic acid, which is used to treat mental deficiencies in adults. It also has soothing and lubricating properties, and is used in medicines to soothe tonsilitis, sore throats, coughs, colds, constipation, gravel and stones. Flaxseed is largely employed as an addition to cough medicines. As a domestic remedy for colds, coughs and irritation of the urinary organs, Flaxseed tea is most valuable. A little honey and lemon juice makes it very agreeable and more efficacious. This demulcent infusion contains a large quantity of mucilage, and is made from 1 ounce of the ground or entire seeds to 1 pint of boiling water. It is taken in wineglassful doses, which may be repeated ad libitum.

Flaxseed oil, mixed with an equal quantity of lime water, known then as Carron Oil, is an excellent application for burns and scalds.

Immature linseed contains the glucoside linamarin. At certain temperatures (optimum 40 -50 C), conditions of acidity (pH 2-8) and in the presence of moisture, an associated enzyme linase - will release prussic acid from the glucoside. Under normal conditions of manufacture, involving high-temperature treatment, the linease is destroyed so that no prussic acid can subsequently be released. Unprocessed whole seeds and linseed cakes processed under low temperature can be toxic to animals, especially if the seed or the cake is wetted before being used for feed. As the enzyme is destroyed by sufficient heat, boiling for ten minutes will make the feed safe. Extraction with trichloroethylene or carbon tetrachloride destroys the glucoside.

The bark and the leaves are used in the treatment of gonorrhea. The flowers are cardiotonic and nervine. The plant has a long history of folk use in the treatment of cancer. It has been found to contain various anticancer agents.

Along with carotenes, flavonoids, and other valuable phytochemicals, lignans are shown to play an ever increasing role in numerous aspects of human health. Lignans are phytochemicals that protect against certain cancers, particularly those that are hormone sensitive. Lignans in flaxseeds are 200 to 800 times more concentrated than any other lignan source.

Flaxseed products come in the following edible forms:

  • Whole -Whole flaxseed can be kept in cool, dry storage (0 to 80 F) for several years. Whole flaxseed needs to be ground so that nutrients and compounds can be utilized by the human digestive tract.
  • Ground - Grind at home with a coffee grinder or food processor. In some geographic areas it may also be available for purchase pre-ground. Ground flaxseed can be stored at refrigerator or freezer temperatures for several months.
  • Oil - Flaxseed oil is cold-pressed without solvents. The oil is usually sold in health food stores. Oil can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four months. Check the expiration date when purchasing.

Seed - raw or cooked

The seed contains 30 - 40% oil, which comprises mainly linoleic and linolenic acids. The seed also contains cyanogenic glycosides (prussic acid). In small quantities these glycosides stimulate respiration and improve digestion, but in excess can cause respiratory failure and death. Cultivars low in these glycosides have been developed and large quantities of the seed would need to be eaten to achieve a harmful dose. The seed is used in breads and cereals, it can also be sprouted and used in salads. The seed is hard to digest and provokes flatulence. A nutritional analysis is available.

The whole seed is too hard for animal feeding and must be either crushed or softened by soaking and boiling. Because it is rich in oil it can be used as a concentrated energy feed for ruminants and pigs. Whole seeds can be used as an ingredient in calf meals. As the oil in the seed is unsaturated, it may produce soft pork if too much seed is fed to pigs.

The roasted seed is said to be a coffee substitute. A herbal tea can be brewed from the seed. An edible oil is obtained from the seed, though it needs to be properly refined before it can be eaten. Some caution is advised in the use of the seeds for food since some varieties of this plant contain toxins.

A fiber is obtained from the stem. It is of very high quaiity and is used in making cloth, sails, nets, paper, insulating material etc. The plant is harvested just after it flowers. The yield is 0.5 to 0.9 tonnes of fiber per hectare.

Whole Flax Seed

Used as an infusion, decoction, gruel and poultice.

The 1997 Commission E on Phytotherapy and Herbal Substances of the German Federal Institute for Drugs recommends Flaxseed for 'Internal: Chronic constipation, for colons damaged by abuse of laxatives, irritable colon, diverticulitis, as mucilage for gastritis and enteritis. External: As cataplasm for local inflammation.'

'Contraindications: Ileus of any origin. Side Effects: If directions are observed, i.e., especially if the concomitant administration of sufficient amounts of liquid (1:10) is observed, there are no known side effects. Interactions with Other Drugs: As with any other mucilage, the absorption of other drugs may be negatively affected.'

'Dosage: Unless otherwise prescribed: Internal: 1 tablespoon of whole or 'bruised' seed (not ground) with 150 ml of liquid 2 - 3 times daily. 2 - 3 tablespoons of milled flaxseed for the preparation of flaxseed mucilage (gruel). External: 30 - 50 g flaxseed flour for a moist-heat cataplasm or compress. Mode of Administration: Internal: As seed, as cracked or coarsely ground seed, in which only the cuticle and mucilage epidermis are damaged; as flaxseed mucilage (gruel) and other galenical preparations. External: As flaxseed flour or flaxseed expellent.'

'Actions: Laxative effects due to increase in volume and consequent initiation of intestinal peristalsis due to stretching reflexes. Protective effect on the mucosa because of coating action.'

Grieve's classic 'A Modern Herbal': 'Emollient, demulcent, pectoral. The crushed seeds or linseed meal make a very useful poultice, either alone or with mustard. In ulceration and superficial or deep-seated inflammation a linseed poultice allays irritation and pain and promotes suppuration. The addition of a little lobelia seed makes it of greater value in cases of boils. It is commonly used for abscesses and other local affections.'

'Linseed is largely employed as an addition to cough medicines. As a domestic remedy for colds, coughs and irritation of the urinary organs, linseed tea is most valuable. A little honey and lemon juice makes it very agreeable and more efficacious. This demulcent infusion contains a large quantity of mucilage, and is made from 1 oz. of the ground or entire seeds to 1 pint of boiling water. It is taken in wineglassful doses, which may be repeated ad libitum.'

'Linseed oil, mixed with an equal quantity of lime water, known then as Carron Oil, is an excellent application for burns and scalds.'

'Internally, the oil is sometimes given as a laxative; in cases of gravel and stone it is excellent, and has been administered in pleurisy with great success. It may also be used as an injection in constipation. Mixed with honey, linseed oil has been used as a cosmetic for removing spots from the face.'

'The oil enters into veterinary pharmacy as a purgative for sheep and horses, and a jelly formed by boiling the seeds is often given to calves.'

'Linseed is often employed, with other seeds, as food for small birds.'

'Plantain seeds, also a favourite food of small birds, can, it is said, be used instead of linseed in making poultices, as they contain much mucilage, though not so much oil.'

King's 1898 Dispensatory: 'Flaxseed is used as a demulcent and emollient. An infusion of the entire seeds, an ounce to a quart of water at 100 C. (212 F.), forms a mucilaginous draught which is much employed in ardor urinae and urinary diseases, nephritic pains, coughs, colds, colo-rectitis, pulmonary, gastro-enteric, and urinary inflammations. When not contraindicated, the addition of lemon juice improves the flavor, or it may be sweetened with loaf sugar or honey.'

'An infusion of flaxseed, or of flaxseed meal, forms an excellent laxative injection; and the meal added to boiling water, and made of the proper consistence, makes an excellent cataplasm (see Cataplasma Lini). Dose of the infusion, 1 or 2 pints daily.'

'Linseed oil in doses of 2 fluid ounces twice a day, is said to have cured severe cases of piles within 2 or 3 weeks; while using it liquors and stimulating diet are to be avoided. It is likewise reputed beneficial when internally administered in dysentery, colic, and lumbricus.'

'Used as an enema it is advantageous in dysentery, hemorrhoids, and ascarides; and combined with lime-water, it forms Carron oil, an excellent application to burns. One pint of linseed oil, combined with ounce each, of oils of origanum and wintergreen, forms a pleasant cathartic; to be given in the same doses as castor oil.'

Eclectic Materia Medica, 1922 (Felter): 'External. Flaxseed and its oil are emollient. A flaxseed poultice (Cataplasma Lini) applied early upon inflamed and painful surfaces will relieve pain, cause relaxation, and sometimes resolution. If applied after pus begins to form it will hasten suppuration. Deepseated inflammation can often be aborted by the judicious use of a flaxseed poultice. The danger of favoring sepsis when used upon open or abraded tissues should be borne in mind. Equal parts of linseed oil and lime water form Carron Oil, the best primary dressing for burns and scalds. Linseed meal added to the wash water will assist in removing the odor of iodoform from the hands.

Internal. An infusion of the seeds ( ounce to Boiling Water, 16 fluidounces) is an excellent demulcent forming a pleasant mucilaginous drink for inflamed or irritated membranes. It is especially useful in gastro-intestinal and renal inflammations, and as a lenitive after acute poisoning by irritants. The addition of licorice root or lemon juice and sugar makes of the foregoing an agreeable linctus for irritative coughs and acutely inflamed bronchial mucous membranes. Linseed oil is a good laxative and is sometimes used as an enema to remove ascarides. Hemorrhoids have been cured by the laxative influence of linseed oil given in daily repeated doses of 1 to 2 ounces. Linseed oil may be given freely in poisoning by alkalies, when other bland oils are not at hand.'

Linseed Cake (oilcake) for Livestock

Linseed cake has the reputation of causing "bloom" on the coats of cattle, which is attributed to the oil. The cake in large amounts is laxative, and an excess has an undesirable softening effect on the butterfat and gives the milk a rancid taste. The recommended maximum intake for cattle is 3 kg per day. Because of this softening property of the oil, linseed cake is unsatisfactory as a main ingredient in pig feeds. Moreover, being deficient in some essential amino acids, it is not suitable as the sole source of proteins for swine. It is, however, a good protein supplement when used together with fish meal, skim milk or other animal by-products. Of course, the extracted meal is not likely to have any softening effects. Up to 1 kg per day has been used with good results, but not more than 8% linseed meal is commonly included in rations. For young pigs and brood sows, a maximum of 5% linseed meal in the ration is usually recommended.

Linseed cake is toxic to poultry except in very small proportions (under 3%). Larger amounts depress growth. The toxicity can largely be eliminated by soaking the meal in water for twenty-four hours or by adding pyridoxin, one of the B-vitamins, to the diet. The reasons for the antitoxic effect of the vitamin are unknown.

Known Hazards: The seed of some strains contain cyanogenic glycosides [cyanide!] in the seed though the toxicity is low, especially if the seed is eaten slowly. It becomes more toxic if water is drunk at the same time. The cyanogenic glycosides are also present in other parts of the plant and have caused poisoning to livestock.


  • Flax seed -
  • Map -
  • Drawing -
  • Seed image -
  • Top photo -

Main Menu

This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran

Created: Sunday, December 12, 2004; Last Updated: Monday, October 15, 2012  
Copyright © 1998, USA