Growing Flax: How I Learned Where Flax Seed Comes From
Last Winter I was perusing a seed catalog and saw the word “flax” next to a beautiful blue flower. I thought to myself ‘could this be the same flax that I’ve eaten in crackers and oatmeal?’ I honestly never thought about where those tiny little seeds come from. Did you?
Flax is a beautiful plant that produces dainty, little blue flowers, but a certain kind of flax linum usitatissimum is used for making fibers and producing the seeds we often buy at the grocery store. Check out this excerpt from Mother Earth Living magazine:
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.
After reading the description, I decided to try growing it for fun. After all, I really enjoy finding naturally blue flowers in the garden (ie. borage & cornflower) so flax could be a great addition! I purchased some linum usitatissimum seeds and started them in Spring. They germinated very easily, but it took about 10 days. I followed the same process I outline in my seed starting guide.
Observations on growing habit
While my flax grew, I was immediately surprised how it grew like grass—mostly upright with very little bushy shape or offshoots. Each seed grew about one, upright stem with a spray of blue flowers near the top. At one point I even tried pinching the top to promote side growth. That didn’t work. Haha. So, if I were to grow it again, I would try direct sowing VERY thickly so it grows more like grass or wheat and each plant can protect its neighbor. Plus, this would give me a lot more flax to harvest! As a new flax grower, I had spaced each seedling at least 6 inches apart during transplanting, so I only got spindly plants that looked like they were going to blow over. Grow in:
♦Full sun (but in cooler weather, so early spring or Fall). Semi-frost tolerant when established.
♦Sow thickly in patches for support.
♦Liked a well draining soil. Needs evenly most soil to establish. Less water once established.
Look at the pretty blue flowers!
How and when to harvest flax
I left my plants to flower and start to dry out. The stems started to turn a little yellow, and I could see that the flowers had transformed into very round little seed heads that were also starting to turn brown. After reading some articles on harvesting flax, I just decided to go for it. A large part of gardening is tactile. It’s intuitive. It gets better with experience.
The picture above of me holding our flax is from the day we harvested it. Notice how the majority is turning yellow and brown? There are seed pods, but there are even some new flowers coming in! From what I read online, there will inevitably be some late flowers, but the goal is to harvest when the majority of the flax is ready. If you wait too long, the seed pods could burst open and you’ll lose all the seeds.
So we cut our flax and assembled the stems into a large bundle to dry further. As a first timer, I figured I’d follow the general rules for choosing a good location for drying most anything: dry, good circulation, and no direct sun. Per usual, our garage makes a great place for drying.
Processing Flax for the seeds
Months passed before I could process my lonely flax hanging in the garage (you know, life gets busy). The seed pods started to feel really crisp and fragile…as if one touch would cause them to burst. For fun, I picked off a little, round seed pod and pinched it between my fingers. It snapped open and scattered the tiniest, shiniest, most lustrous looking seeds I had ever seen into my palm. I think there is a reason that flax is frequently brought up in the realm of healthy hair (disclaimer: I’m not health expert, but I do know flax is high in omega 3’s). Either way, looking at those gorgeous little seeds I swear could feel my hair already getting shinier!
As I’ve probably said a million times, I’m a flax-growing first timer so the following tips may be things you already knew:
♦ Don’t process flax on a windy day
♦ When blowing flax shells, be sure the wind is working with you….or else all your shells will fly back in your face and eyes!
♦ I tried both a bowl and a cookie sheet—-my preference was the cookie sheet AND slightly moving it back and forth as I was blowing away the casings. I think this was due to the shape of flax seeds being more flat than round.
Assemble your materials. You’ll want a paper bag to catch your smashed seed pods, a smashing device (aka a rolling pin), and a cookie sheet for separating the husks from the seeds.
Place your seeds heads inside the bag and flatten it down. Cut off any extra stem length so you aren’t trying to wrangle stems while smashing.
Use your rolling pin to roll up and down, side to side. You need to put enough pressure to crack open the seed heads, but not too much that you’d grind down the seeds. Try a few rolls and then peek inside the bag to gauge how you are doing.
Keep rolling over the bag until all the seeds have been released from the pods.
Empty the contents of the bag onto your cookie sheet
Discard all the stems and large husks/pieces that are easy to remove.
Pick up the cookie sheet and go to an area where you don’t mind the husks getting on the ground.
Gently blow on the seeds. The idea is to direct your breath over the top of the seeds, NOT down on top of them. The light husks will blow away, leaving behind the heavier flax seeds. You can see a slight demonstration below. Note: you can also use a small fan to do this but you’d have to be careful to make sure it is not too powerful.
Eventually I learned that slightly shaking the cookie sheet side to side while blowing really helped the heavier seeds settle flat to the bottom and allowed for better separation.
I should also mention to remember to take a break so you don’t get light headed!
Keep going until you only have seeds left!
Conclusion & Thoughts
My hearty bunch of flax (you can see the general size from the picture) yielded about 1/4 cup of flax seeds. Time efficient? No. Extremely fun and a great learning experience? YES!!! Learning where food comes from means a lot to me—it’s a huge part of the reason behind Freckled Californian. The better connected we can be to the food we put in our bodies, the better equipped we are to care for our bodies, our families, our planet, and make good choices. Looking back just five years ago, I was buying flax in a bag at the grocery store without even a thought as to what it was. I’m not ashamed, just in awe of the journey. Hope you enjoyed following along with my adventure!
Have you ever thought about flax seed and where it comes from? Have you grown it before?
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