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Just what Is flax?

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

I have been enjoying trying new foods using recipes that often call for ingredients I'm not familiar with. Last week I learned that quinoa is a grain-like seed with high protein value. Now, let's take a closer look at flax.

Flax is thought to be native to the Mediterranean region of Europe. Early uses utilized the plant's fiber to make linen cloth. Linen cloth was found in Egyptian tombs and common in early America history. More recently, the plant's linseed oil is used in wood finishing and other paint products. The linseed oil meal is a protein source in some livestock feed and dog food. The current craze uses flax seed as a health food.

Some of you may know flax as an ornamental garden flower (Linum perenne). Grown for its beautiful sky blue flowers, this drought tolerant plant grows under many environmental conditions. It blooms from May to June and is one to two feet tall.

For those who love butterflies, the garden flax is a larval food source for the variegated fritillary. Unfortunately, this means that its caterpillar eats the flax plant. Those with butterfly gardens understand that and simply plant more flax. Seeing the beautiful adult butterfly is worth sacrificing a few plants to feed its young.

The commercially grown flax (Linum usitatissimum) is also a pretty annual plant. It grows 12 to 36 inches tall. The light blue, five-petaled flower turns into a capsule with about 10 seeds. This spring annual needs 90-110 days to reach harvest stage. Canada produces most of the world's flaxseed. In the United States it is grown in the cooler upper Midwest states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota.

Flax is available as flaxseed or flaxmeal. The flax meal is a byproduct of the oil extraction process. Both are found in various recipes that I've seen.

I used flax to make homemade granola that I use in my yogurt, salads, and other dishes. The recipe I used is found at I would also like to try flax in bread and muffins.

Do you have an ingredient that you would like to know more about? If so, comment below and maybe I'll include it in a future column.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.