Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this mysterious plant has popped up in my East Finchley garden, in two locations. Both are directly under a bird feeder. At first I was a little puzzled, as I only ever feed my birds sunflower seeds, but then it occurred to me that ‘my’ birds are probably a little more promiscuous in their feeding habits than I give them credit for. Because this delightful blue flower is flax, or linseed, and is a popular ingredient in many seed mixes. Plus, it can obviously survive a journey through a bird’s digestive tract.
I was lucky to get some photographs of the plant this morning, because by this afternoon the petals on all of these flowers had dropped off, something that Richard Mabey notes in Flora Britannica. We have two native flax plants: the delightfully named fairy flax (Linum catharticum) and pale flax (Linum bienne), but this one is an ancient introduction which is known only as a cultivated plant, and seems to have arrived in the UK in the middle ages. The species name ‘usitatissimum’ means ‘really, really, really useful’, and so it is, because the plant not only produces the fibre needed for linen, but its seeds are linseeds, used not just for bird food but also for a wide variety of human requirements.
Firstly, the linen link. Humans appear to have been using flax to produce cloth since the paleolithic age 30,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians considered the plant a symbol of purity, and priests wore garments woven from the fibre. Mummies were preserved in linen cloth. Roman ships had billowing sails made from flax. In later years, Flanders became the centre of linen production, and it pre-dated cotton as the most important fibre crop in North American for many years. However, by the twentieth century 90% of all linen production came from northern Russia, as cotton production became cheaper. Artificial fibres further put a dent in the linen market.
The past ubiquity of the material is marked in English by the way that we used phrases like ‘bed-linen’, even though these days our sheets are more likely to be made of cotton.
However, as I sit here on a Sunday afternoon typing away, I am wearing a linen dress. In spite of the fact that it gets rather crumpled, the fibre is one of the most comfortable for hot summer weather, certainly much preferable to the various man-made options. I love that it breathes, especially important when you are of a ‘certain age’ and a little prone to ‘feeling the heat’.
When I look at flax, my first question is where the blooming hell does the fabric come from? This is not a plant that wears its usefulness obviously. However, a little research tells me that the fibre comes from the bast, which is a layer just below the surface of the stem. The fibre apparently looks just like blonde hair (hence ‘flaxen-haired’). It is stronger than cotton fibre, but less elastic. The finest threads can be used to make lace or damask, or even (the height of luxury) linen sheets. Coarser grades can make rope or canvas. The fibre itself can be turned into paper for banknotes, cigarette papers or even teabags.
Flax is harvested in a brief window of time when it begins to turn yellow. Too early, and the seed and fibre are underdeveloped: too late and the fibre begins to degrade.
The plant is pulled up by the roots (it’s an annual crop anyhow) and left to dry, before going through a series of processes. Retting involves rotting away the unwanted parts of the stem so that the fibre can be extracted. You can do this by throwing the flax into a pond, but this produces relatively low quality results and, as anyone who has produced comfrey or nettle fertilizer by this method can attest, the smell is appalling. The very finest quality fibre is produced by leaving the flax in a field and allowing the dew to gradually rot away the unwanted parts.
The fibre then needs to be separated from the rest of the plant. I love that one of these processes is called ‘heckling’, and involves combing the stems with ‘heckling combs’ which look rather more like instruments of torture.
The flax seeds, or linseeds, are having something of a renaissance as a health food at the moment, especially as a source of omega -3, 6 and 9 acids, B vitamins and minerals. They are high in protein, and are said to be beneficial for lowering cholesterol. They are also full of fibre, although eating too many can apparently be a source of bowel obstruction, so don’t go making any linseed pasties, people. If you would like the health benefits of flax seeds without any danger of toilet troubles, you can also buy flax seed oil, which may work rather better in a smoothie. There can be little doubt of its nutritional value, and so there is no surprise that a company which has crowdfunded to finance a new meal replacement product would have included it as part of its formulation.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Soylent.
Much like Slimfast, Soylent is intended to be a meal replacement for slimmers, but unlike Slimfast it is intended for hipsters and trendy folk. The liquid has had various formulations that have included algal oil and algal flour in addition to flax seed oil and canola. There have been various reports of ‘gas adaptation problems’ and gastrointestinal upsets, but the key problem appears to have been the taste. Here are some reviews:
“like someone wrung out a dishtowel into a glass”
“my mouth tastes hot and like old cheese”
“homemade nontoxic Play-Doh”
However, my chief worry (she says while jumping up and down) is this: did no one ever see the science fiction film Soylent Green? In which the meal replacement that everyone ate was made from REAL DEAD PEOPLE? Either the manufacturers didn’t know what the food in Soylent Green was made from, or it’s irony gone Too Far.
But, as usual, I digress. Here is an orange cranberry flaxseed muffin to take the taste away.
Linseed oil has also been used in a wide variety of products and manufacturing processes. It dries slowly, is not brittle once it has dried, and is very hydrophobic. It’s been included in artists’ paints, is a key ingredient of putty, and is a beautiful treatment for wood, allowing the grain to shine through. It is used to season a cricket bat, and to enhance the beauty of a lute.
Furthermore, it’s a key ingredient in linoleum. Who knew? I suppose the name should have given it away. Linseed oil is used to bind the various materials (such as cork chippings or wood dust) that make up the flooring material. When I was growing up, every kitchen and bathroom in a working-class London home was floored with ‘lino’ – it was water-resistant, cheerful, easy to clean and relatively hard-wearing. In the 1970’s it was largely replaced with PVC floor-covering, but is making a comeback because it is more environmentally friendly.
Now, to revert to the description above of preparing flax so the fibre can be removed, and linen woven. Irish linen is the best in the world, and so there is no surprise in my mind that one of Ireland’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, has a poem about the process of retting the plant, and about so much else too. I hope that you enjoy it.
Death of a Naturalist
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Photo One (Heckling comb) – By Kozuch – Own work (Own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8040921
Photo Two (Muffin) – http://www.yogurtland.com/category/dessert/cakes/page/4/
Poem by Seamus Heaney – http://www.inspirationalstories.com/poems/death-of-a-naturalist-seamus-heaney-poem/
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