This section is from the book "British Wild Flowers - In Their Natural Haunts Vol2-4", by A. R. Horwood. Also available from Amazon: A British Wild Flowers In Their Natural Haunts.
Photo. H Irving - Flax (Linum usitatissimum, L.)
Flax is called Lint Bells, Lint Bennels, Blaebows, Flix, Lin, Line, Lint, Lint-bow, Vlix. A man in the flax trade in Dorset is called a linman. Line is pronounced lun (as in Norse or Danish) either in reference to the plant, or seed linseed, or fibre once prepared on the lun-wheel. Fields in Westmorland still go by the name of Lun-holmes, Lindale, Lugnegnards.
Lintlaw, Linthill, in Berwickshire, and Linthaugh, probably derive their names from the cultivation of lint. Lint Bells, Lint-bows, mean the flowers and seed pods of flax.
Flax was worn as a talisman against witchcraft. One who spins after the Twelfth Night is bewitched. The fairies' clothes are made of fairy flax. On St. John's Eve men wearing wheat, women flax, meet around an historic stone and place wreaths on it, and if they are fresh for some time the lovers they represent will be united, but if they wither love will die. The proverb, "Get thy spindle and thy distaff made, and God will send the flax", enjoins faith. If the sun shines on New Year's Eve in Westphalia the flax will be straight. When Joseph and Mary were fleeing into Egypt the flax bristled up.
In Bohemia, if children dance in the flax they will grow up beautiful. To spin on Saturday in Germany is bad luck. They have this legend:
Two old women, good friends, were the most industrious spinners in their village, Saturday finding them engrossed in their work as on other days of the week. At length one of them died, but on the Saturday evening following she appeared to the other, who as usual was very busy at her wheel, and showing her burning hand, said:
"See what I in hell have won, Because on Saturday eve I spun".
In Thuringia, however, they consider flax a lucky plant. When a young woman gets married she places flax in her shoes as a charm against poverty. It is supposed also to have health-giving properties. In Germany when an infant seems weakly and thrives slowly it is placed naked upon the turf on Midsummer Day, and flax seed is sprinkled over it, the notion being that just as flax seed grows so will the infant grow gradually stronger. If a person is dizzy in Thuringia he is advised to run after sunset naked through a flax field three times, and the flax will take upon itself the dizziness.
Flax has been used since prehistoric times, and the inner fibrous bark was used then as it is now. The fibres consist of bast, which is very strong, and with cells 20-40 mm. long. The Egyptian mummy clothes are made of flax. The tow was used by the ancients for wicks for oil lamps, and linseed for oil. It is used in oil painting.
Seed is sown broadcast in pulverized sandy loam in April. It is kept well weeded. When the seed is ripe it is pulled up by the roots, and capsules are removed by the combs, the stalks are tied in bundles, and macerated in still water, kept below the surface by weights for about a fortnight, when it appears to be decaying and becomes soft. It is then taken out and laid on grass for another fortnight, dew and heat helping the decay. When dry it is tied up in bundles and stacked for manufacture.
If it is not steeped it is simply laid on the grass, a process known as dew-retting. Hut it has latterly been simply dried, bound, and stacked like corn, and the capsules and fibre separated by machinery, the fibre being much stronger by this process. It is bleached by the machine process by steeping in soft soap. The crushed seed yields an oil, used in poultices, for oilcake, and for manure.
The offensive nature of macerating it caused an Act, 33 Hen. VIII, c. 17, to be enacted in order to stop it:
No person shall water any hemp or flax in any river, running water, stream, brook or other common pond where beasts are used to be watered, on pain of forfeiting for every time so doing twenty shillings.
Once hemp and flax grew in every garden. A premium was given by Parliament in the eighteenth century to encourage the growing of flax.
After growing it on land it is necessary to manure the ground well, and to have a rotation of crops.
Urit enim lini campum seges.
Virgil, Georgics, i, 77.
It is used as an emollient for coughs and lung troubles.
Essential Specific Characters: 66. Linum usitatissimum, L. - Stem tall, single, leaves broad, distant, lanceolate, alternate, flowers large, blue, sepals ovate to lanceolate, petals notched.