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The Flax plant.

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Flax is the common name for a family of plants, and for plants of a genus within that family. One species is grown extensively for its fibre and seed. The fibre products include linen threads and fabrics, and the seed is the source of linseed oil and cattle meal. Other species are cultivated as ornamental plants or for pharmaceuticals.

Flax plants range in height from 30 to 100 cm (12 to 40 in) and have shallow tap roots. Because the stems contain the fibre, the taller varieties, which are sparsely branched, are used for fibre production. The seed-producing varieties have shorter stems and are more heavily branched. Both fibre and seed flaxes have narrow, alternate, lance-shaped leaves. The flowers are completely symmetrical, with five sepals, five petals, and ten stamens, and up to ten seeds are borne in a capsule. The flowers are yellow, blue, or white, but the flowers of most cultivated varieties range in colour from deep to pale shades of blue. Some varieties, which may have white, violet, pink, or red blossoms, make effective ornamental plants.

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Primarily a temperate-region plant, flax grows under a wide range of temperature and moisture conditions. High temperatures and high precipitation are, however, unfavourable for production of either flax or seed. Moderately fertile silt or clay loams are most satisfactory for cultivation.

Fibre flax is harvested by uprooting the plants, which are then piled in the fields to dry. The seed is removed to be used for feed or oilseed, or to be retained for planting. The straw is retted, a process that promotes partial decomposition of the stem to permit separation of the fibre from the woody portions. In retting, the straw is spread on the ground in order to subject it to the action of rain, dew, and micro-organisms, and to cyclic wetting, drying, freezing, and thawing. Another process, called water-retting, which is used in some countries, consists of immersing the straw in ponds, streams, or special tanks in which water and micro-organisms promote decomposition.

The retted stems are crushed and broken, and the fibre is separated from the woody fragments, called shives.

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Seed flax does not compete well with weeds. It is planted on clean firm seedbeds. The inability of seed flax to compete with weeds or other plants has made it valuable as a so-called nurse crop, or companion crop, for plantings of alfalfa (lucerne), clovers, and other forage legumes. Weeds in flax crops may be controlled by the use of herbicide sprays.

Flax seed yields from 30 to 40 per cent linseed oil by weight. The oil is used in the manufacture of paints and varnishes, linoleum, oilcloth, printing inks, soaps, and many other products. Since 1959 it has also been used as a coating for concrete road surfaces and bridge decks to prevent scaling and surface deterioration from heavy traffic, freeze-thaw cycles, and applications of salt or calcium chloride for snow and ice control. The oil cake, or linseed meal, that remains after the oil has been expressed contains 30 to 40 per cent crude protein and is a valuable feed for livestock.

In recent years the fibre from seed flax has been used in the manufacture of high-grade and special-purpose papers. For example, in the United States, most cigarette paper is manufactured from the fibre of domestically grown seed flax.

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