Herb to Know: Flax

For beauty, nutrition and flavor, this tenacious plant is hard to beat.

| June/July 1995

flax 1

After blooming, the seed pods swell and turn brown.

The life of a flax flower is transitory: a flower lasts less than one day. But each plant makes dozens of flowers for three to four weeks, and a plot of flax in bloom looks like a reflection of the sky. Then seedpods swell to the size of a pea and turn from green to gold as the seeds inside ripen, and the plants dry out and die.

The species of flax grown for fiber and seed production is an annual called Linum usitatissimum; that’s Latin for “the most useful kind of flax.” Flax is almost always grown like a grain crop, in plots of many plants crowded close together. Each individual plant makes one or more slender, erect stems about 3 feet tall, scattered with narrow, pale green leaves about 1 inch long. The stems branch near the top to bear blue or white round, 1/2-inch-wide flowers with five petals.

Different cultivars of flax have been selected for maximum yield and quality of either fiber or oil. Farmers specialize in one product or the other, choose cultivars accordingly, and take slightly different approaches to growing and harvesting their crops. On a backyard scale, it isn’t necessary to specialize. From a flax patch about 4 feet square, you can harvest enough fiber to make a basket and enough seeds for a batch of bread or crackers.

Grow and Harvest Flax

Flax tolerates a range of soils and climates and can be grown in almost any part of the United States. Choose a site in full sun, with deep, fertile, well-drained soil, and prepare it as you would for growing vegetables or flowers. Flax grows best in cool weather, so sow it outdoors as soon as you can work the soil in spring, at the same time that you would sow peas, lettuce or other cool-weather crops. This can be as early as January or as late as May, depending on where you live. 

Rake the surface of the soil to prepare a smooth, fine-textured seedbed. Measure your planned flax plot to determine its area, and plan to sow about one tablespoon of flax seeds per 10 square feet. Dust the small brown seeds with flour before sowing so that you can scatter them evenly across the surface of the plot. Then use a rake to draw the seeds down into the soil, covering them 1/4- to 1/2-inch-deep. Water gently if the soil starts to dry out before germination, which takes about 10 days.

Seedling flax plants quickly develop a good root system and need watering only if the weather is unusually warm, dry or windy. Pull out any weeds that appear before the seedlings have grown a few inches tall; after the seeds sprout, the flax plants will crowd out any weeds. Rabbits and rodents sometimes nibble flax, but it has few insect or disease problems. The only common, serious crisis in growing flax is that the tender stalks sometimes get knocked flat by hail or heavy rainstorms. If that happens, use the tines of a garden fork. They may straighten up again, or at least partially recover.

3/18/2015 10:33:43 PM

LearningToGarden- The tools to process flax are similar to those used to process wool. Spinning flax is much less popular than spinning wool is in America, so it's a little harder to find flax tools, but luckily you can often substitute wool tools. TheWoolery.com is a good place to get supplies. They'll have the hackles, drop spindles/spinning wheels, etc. If you're interested in working with flax as a fiber you'll first have to learn the basics of spinning. There are numerous online resources to help with this

6/12/2014 9:21:51 AM

What do the tools look like? Do you know where to get the tools to process flax?

mother earth news fair


Oct. 21-22, 2017
Topeka, KS.

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!