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Flax Improvement

Flax field in bloomCommon flax (Linum usitatissimum L.) was one of the first crops domesticated by man. Flax is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean region of Europe; the Swiss Lake Dweller People of the Stone Age apparently produced flax utilizing the fiber as well as the seed. Linen cloth made from flax was used to wrap the mummies in the early Egyptian tombs. In the United States, the early colonists grew small fields of flax for home use, and commercial production of fiber flax began in 1753. However, with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, flax production began to decline. During the 1940's fiber flax production in the U.S. dropped to nearly zero. Today a few individuals still grow fiber flax for their own use to make linen. Presently, the major fiber flax producing countries are the Soviet Union, Poland, and France. Linseed oil is valued as a high quality drying oil in paints, ink and coatings. It has a high capacity to be “loaded” with color for color printing.

The propriety that makes linseed a high quality drying oil (high linolenic acid content) also has been suggested as a healthy food for humans.  Stitt (1986) described the importance of omega-3 fatty acid in the human diet.  Flax is one of the highest plant sources of the omega-3 fatty acid.  If additional research confirms the promising characteristics of linseed oil in the human diet to improve blood lipids and/or cholesterol, flax production could continue to increase.  More recently, research has been initiated in the area of cancer prevention.  Again, if research confirms the initial findings, additional production of flax seed would be needed.  The president of the Flax Institute of the United States (Carter 1995, personal communication) predicted "the use of flax for human food will expand greatly in the next 5 years."  Germany now consumes 2.5 million bushels/year in food products. North Dakota might expect to expand production by 1 to 1.5 million acres to meet the demand for human food and animal feed (Carter 1995, personal communication).  Reports of new potential uses for flax seed in animal rations were expected at the 2002 Flax Institute (Carter 2002, personal communication).

In light of the discoveries mentioned above, it is unfortunate that research efforts on flax breeding/improvement have decreased significantly in recent years.  Minnesota terminated the flax breeding program in 1984 with the retirement of V.E. Comstock.  South Dakota has combined flax with other oilseed breeding with probably less than 0.5 SY on flax improvement.   The breeder at SD indicated that 1997 was the last year that new material was evaluated in preregional trials.  North Dakota has 0.9 SY on flax breeding.  The USDA/ARS flax improvement research at North Dakota State University was reduced to maintenance of the Flax World Collection and coordination of regional testing several years ago and in the past 5 years was moved to Ames, Iowa.  The research supported by this project is the principal flax breeding effort left in the United States and is highly justified for a crop having $45,000,000 annual value grown in a limited geographic area. In addition, flax has a much greater net income potential.  Much of the production and value is dependent on the total farm program.  Yield of flaxseed continues to be less than optimum per unit area as a result of late seeding.

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