Linseed was used to make cloth in Northern Europe as long ago as the Stone Age
The intense blue colour of a field of flax in flower is a remarkable sight and one not so commonly found in Britain today. The cloth made from the finest fibres in the stem of linseed (flax) plants is well known to us as linen. Coarser fibres are used to make rope and twine. Linseed is thought to be one of the oldest fibre crops in the world. Like wheat and barley it is believed to have originated in the fertile valleys of west Asia, including Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
Linen was certainly being made in ancient Egypt and drawings on tombs and temples at Thebes on the River Nile show flax plants flowering. Since then it has spread across the world; Canada is the largest producer today.
The seeds themselves are also versatile. When ground and processed they produce a vegetable oil that is known as linseed oil. This has been used for centuries. It is a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, the same nutrient that is found in oily fish. These acids help to contribute to a healthy diet. Indeed, the growing popularity of ‘superfoods’ has helped linseeds evolve from an obscure crop to a known health food, appearing in breads, muffins and cakes.
Linseed oil is also traditionally used in putty, paints and for oiling wood, especially cricket bats. It even finds its way into animal feed, and is an efficient and clean fuel for energy production from plants (biofuel).
Other uncommon crops in the UK include lavender, which is grown in Norfolk and Somerset, and grapes, which are harvested largely from a handful of vineyards in south east England. As the climate warms, we are likely to see more vineyards. When it comes to unusual animals reared commercially, we can find ostriches, llamas, water buffalo and snails in Britain’s farms.