Flax (linseed)

The common Flax plant, from which we get our Linseed, is of great

antiquity, dating from the twenty-third century before Christ, and

having been cultivated in all countries down to the present time. But

it is exhausting to the soil in England, and therefore not favoured in

home growth for commercial uses. The seeds come to us chiefly

from the Baltic. Nevertheless, the plant (Linum usitatissimum) is

by no means uncommon
in our cornfields, flowering in June, and

ripening its seed in September. Provincially it is called Lint and

Lyne. A rustic proverb says if put in the shoes it preserves [203]

from poverty; wherever found it is probably an escape from


The word flax is derived from filare, to spin, or, filum, a

thread; and the botanical title, linum, is got from the Celtic lin

also signifying thread. The fibres of the bark are separated from the

woody matter by soaking it in water, and they then form tow, which

is afterwards spun into yarn, and woven into cloth. This water

becomes poisonous, so that Henry the Eighth prohibited the

washing of flax in any running stream.

The seeds ate very rich in linseed oil, after expressing which, the

refuse is oil-cake, a well-known fattening food for cattle. The oil

exists chiefly in the outer skins of the seeds, and is easily extracted

by boiling water, as in the making a linseed poultice. These seeds

contain gum, acetic acid, acetate and muriate of potash, and other

salts, with twenty-two parts per cent. of the oil. They were taken as

food by the ancient Greeks and Romans, whilst Hippocrates knew

the demulcent properties of linseed. An infusion of the seeds has

long been given as Linseed tea for soothing a sore chest or throat in

severe catarrh, or pulmonary complaints; also the crushed seed is

used for making poultices. Linseed oil has laxative properties, and

forms, when mixed with lime water, or with spirit of turpentine, a

capital external application to recent burns or scalds.

Tumours of a simple nature, and sprains, may be usefully rubbed

with Linseed oil; and another principal service to which the oil is

put is for mixing the paints of artists. To make Linseed tea, wash

two ounces of Linseed by putting them into a small strainer, and

pouring cold water through it; then pare off as thinly as possible the

yellow rind of half a lemon; to the Linseed and lemon rind add a

quart of cold water, [204] and allow them to simmer over the fire for

an hour-and-a-half; strain away the seeds, and to each half-pint of

the tea add a teaspoonful of sugar, or sugar candy, with some lemon

juice, in the proportion of the juice of one lemon to each pint of tea.

The seeds afford but little actual nourishment, and are difficult of

digestion; they provoke troublesome flatulence, though sometimes

used fraudulently for adulterating pepper. Flax seed has been mixed

with corn for making bread, but it proved indigestible and hurtful to

the stomach. In the sixteenth century during a scarcity of wheat, the

inhabitants of Middleburgh had recourse to Linseed for making

cakes, but the death of many citizens was caused thereby, it bringing

about in those who partook of the cakes dreadful swellings on the

body and face. There is an Act of Parliament still in force which

forbids the steeping of Flax in rivers, or any waters which cattle are

accustomed to drink, as it is found to communicate a poison

destructive to cattle and to the fish inhabiting such waters. In

Dundee a hank of yarn is worn round the loins as a cure for

lumbago, and girls may be seen with a single thread of yarn round

the head as an infallible specific for tic douloureux.

The Purging Flax (Linum catharticum), or Mill Mountain

(Kamailinon), or Ground Flax, is a variety of the Flax common

on our heaths and pastures, being called also Fairy Flax from its

delicacy, and Dwarf Flax. It contains a resinous, purgative principle,

and is known to country folk as a safe, active purge. They infuse the

herb in water, which they afterwards take medicinally. Also a

tincture is made (H.) from the entire fresh plant, which may be

given curatively for frequent, wattery, painless diarrhoea, two or

three [205] drops for a dose with water every hour or two until the

flux is stayed.