(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 20, 2008.)
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is an annual with slender stems arching from one main stem at the base of the plant to 30” or more. In full sun to partial shade, it blooms in mid summer to early fall and is self-sowing. Flower color ranges from medium blue to white. The New Zealand flax (Phormium) is unrelated.
The healthful benefits from flaxseed are found both in the oil, and in the fiber. Flaxseed is more than 40% oil by weight, high in Omega-3. Omega-3’s are reputed to help in lowering cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease, preventing cancer, reducing bone loss and relieving constipation. Whole flax is very stable but oils and ground or cracked flax become rancid very quickly and require refrigeration. Flax oil is high in LNA (Alfa-linolenic acid), one of the essential fatty acids (the same fatty acid found in fish) which our bodies cannot make and we must get from foods. There is much information available on the Internet about LNA’s which is outside the scope of this article.
Ground or processed flaxseed is now being fed to poultry. The highly advertised “Omega Eggs” (which I buy and eat) are the result of the flax in the feed. “The yolks have increased amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and decreased amounts of saturated fats (Scheider and Lewis, 1997). The increase in yolk polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) is accompanied by substantial decrease in saturated fatty acid, resulting in a healthy fat profile and more nutritional egg. Omega eggs have been consistently lower in cholesterol content from 210 mg/egg (Standard USDA egg level) to 180 mg/egg (Omega egg).” 
The fiber in flax has health benefits also. The seed coat contains a soluble gelatinous substance similar to Metamucil, which helps eliminate constipation. The non-soluble fiber in flax adds bulk to the digestive system further enhancing a healthy colon.
While we benefit most from flaxseed oils, flaxseed is used whole, cracked or ground into meal as a nutritional ingredient in appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, muffins, breads, desserts and even fruit drinks and smoothies. Ground flax adds a nutty taste to oatmeal and yogurt. Most of the flaxseed sold in stores is of the brown variety. However there is a new yellow flaxseed named Omega that is gaining popularity due to its attractiveness in the food industry.
Flax fibers have been a cultivated crop for centuries, producing linen cloth from the stem skin. It is soft and flexible, and often advertised as the material of damasks and lace. Linen is an important component of the US paper money, making it last far longer than paper currency from other countries. Poorer grades of flax fibers are used in the manufacturing of rope. My kitchen twine is linen.
The other long-standing commercial use for flax is linseed oil squeezed from flaxseed and used in finishing fine woodwork. It is still in production today. 80% of linseed oil production goes into paint and oils, and is also used as waterproofing. Remember oilcloth slickers and oilcloth table cloths?
Most of the flax grown in the US and Canada is for the food industry. While flax is regaining popularity today as a commercial crop thanks to awareness of the health benefits, it has been an ornamental plant in our grandmother’s garden and should be in ours.
Thanks to Ulrich and Evert for use of their photos in PlantFiles.
Salmon Spread Delight
8 oz Fat-free or reduced fat cream cheese, softened
3 oz Smoked salmon
2 Tbsp Flax Seed Oil
2 tsp Horseradish, grated or prepared
1 to 2 tsp Lemon juice, fresh, to taste
1 to 2 tsp Honey, to taste
1 1/2 Tbsp Fresh dill weed, chopped (or 1 1/2 tsp Dried)
1/8 tsp Tabasco sauce
1 to 2 Tbsp Milk for adjusting consistency
Sea salt and Fresh ground pepper to taste
Place all ingredients except milk in a food processor or blender.
Process until salmon is coarsely pureed, scraping down the bowl as necessary.
If serving immediately, adjust consistency and seasoning by mixing in milk a little at a time.
To serve later, do not add milk; just cover tightly and refrigerate.
Let warm slightly, and adjust seasoning and consistency before serving.