Herbs in History: Flax
Linum usitatissimum L.
By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | January 2023
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The Making of a Superfood
Illustration 1: Flax, Edward Step, Wayside and woodlands blossoms: a pocket guide to British wild-flowers for the country rambler, London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1895
Flax seed is now in high demand as a superfood. As per a definition, foods in this new category
“are traditional and minimally processed functional foods with their distinct property as being “traditionally used.” Superfoods have the common feature of being part of restricted culinary and medicinal use, often in distant regions. Therefore, they are in the spotlight not only with their extreme and naturally functional health benefits …, but also with their common features of being part of a remote, authentic, or exotic community ... It has also been proposed that superfoods should be classified, not as foods or medicinal plants only, but as both, on the grounds that they provide “an abundance of synergistic elements."
Flax (Linum usitatissimum L., family Linaceae) (Illustration 1) as an excellent historical pedigree, indeed. According to a 2009 report, wild flax fiber has been identified in archaeological material located in the Upper-Paleolithic layers at the Dzudzuana Cave, in Georgia, and dating as far back as 30,000 years ago. This material indicates that prehistoric hunter-gatherers used a pre-domestication species of flax to make rope.
Domestication occurred in more recent historical times, apparently in a single event possibly dating to 11,800-11,300 BP, in the Fertile Crescent. It did not select for the fiber, but rather for the oil-rich sub-species, characterized by larger seeds. Later on, the domesticated sub-species used for its fiber grew abundantly in Egypt where it was used for fabrics, including for the mummies and the sacred body of pharaos.
Crossing the Mediterranean northward and encountering the Greek physicians who wrote down the works attributed to, but not by, Hippocrates, flax was used in a great many applications, with no less than 70 references in the whole collection of Hippocratic writings. It is worth noting that in one such mention, flax is identified as Egyptian, attesting not only to the quality of the Egyptian production, but also to plant exchanges between the two shores of the Mediterranean and sheding a new light on the debated question of the influence (or not) of Egyptian medicine on Greece. Whatever the case, in most of these Hippocratic uses, flax is used as a bandage exactlty in the same way as a wool flake. A short piece of the stalk was softened by soaking it in water or it was cut vertically so as to be opened. It was then applied directly on an open wound. In several cases, it was imbued with some substance: wine or honey as antiseptic agents, deadly nightshade (Solanum spp.) as an anesthetic and analgesic, or also wax, a heavily viscous perfume, or some sort of barley paste as emollients. Sometimes a piece of flax was simply attached over the wound to protect it from further infection.
Illustration 2: Flax in the 7th–century Greek manuscript preserved at Napoli (Italy), National Library, graecus 1, folio 112 recto.
The seed was used in 17 cases. It was not consumed as an internal medicine, but crushed and applied exernally in the form of a barley cream, sometimes mixed with a plant. Although this is not explicitly stated, it seems clear that flax seeds were used in that way for their very real and effective emollient and demulcent property, which could also account for the preference of flax over wool in bandages.
In the first century CE, the use of fragments of flax stalks as bandages disappeared. The whole plant continued to be used, however, but only in what we define now as economic uses. The part used in medicine was the seed, which was not just crushed in bandages as it was the case in Hippocratic times. Our most significant witness to this new phase of flax history is the Greek Dioscorides who devoted a chapter to it in his vast Treatise on Materia Medica (2.103) (Illustration 2).
Dioscorides opens the chapter by stating that flax has the same property as fenugreek (Trigonella foenumgraecum L., Fabaceae), which he analyzes in the previous chapter (2.102). He then specifies that flax seed is dissolutive and emollient for all swellings, both internal and external. Going on, he enumerates several skin and internal conditions for the treatment of which flax seed is efficacious: freckles, facial pimples, shingles, impetigo, and psoriatic nails in external use; throat swelling and internal indurations, expectorant, and anti-tussive in internal use. He concludes mentioning that the decoction of flax seed is purgative and is beneficially injected for intestinal and uteral irritation, in addition to be aphrodisiac when taken “abundantly with honey and pepper in the form of tablets”.
Strangely enough Dioscorides does not mention any alimentary consumption of flax seeds whereas we know that they were used ealier (7th century BCE) in the making of bread and were still used for human food consumption in his time as his contemporary Pliny indicates in his Naturalis Historia. But, as Pliny explicitly states, flax seed was a foodstuff of poor people. Furthermore, it was considered flatulent as Galen stated in the following century. We may thus speculate that it was avoided in alimentary consumption for the trouble it brought to the digestive system. Indeed, Hildegard of Bingen, for example, confirms much later (12th cent. CE) that it should be not be taken as a food.
Knowledge of flax, of the uses of its seeds, and of the health benefits to be expected from them showed increased confusion in the subsequent periods. According to Galen, flax seed was warm at the first degree, which was the lowest degree of the property. For the Arabic physician ibn Butlan (11th cent. CE), instead, it was cold and dry. For this reason, it was good to treat ulcers.
Illustration 3: Flax in the manuscript of the 13th/14th–century Latin manuscript of London, British Library, Egerton 747, f. 56 verso (figure on left of page)
Illustration 4: Blooming blue flax in a farm field
Further on, in the medieval West, flax is characterized as warming as in Galen in a late 13th/early- 14th century manuscript which includes an illustration that depicts well the appearance of the plant (Illustrations 3-4). In this manuscript, flax is also said to be useful to treat cough, to expectorate morbid matter from the chest, and to relieve tenesmus and intestinal pain in a way that reminds the indications provided by Dioscorides. There is a new indication, however: diuresis. Furthermore, flax is explicitly said to be difficult to digest, without providing much nutritional value.
The body of information of classical antiquity (actually the Greeks Dioscorides and Galen, and the Latin Pliny) was reproduced in the Renaissance in the works of Fuchs, Dodoens, and Gerard, witnessing to uncertainy, if not insufficient knowledge of the plant all across Europe.
In his 1542 herbal, the German Leonhart Fuchs simply translated into Latin the Greek text of Dioscorides and Galen to which he added that of the Latin Pliny, without adding any new information. Fuchs’ contemporary, the Belgian Rembert Dodoens described the plant afresh, instead. If he did not provide any new medical information, he added that flaxseed oil was used by painters.
Renewal came slightly later with the Englishman John Gerard, but it was about the botanical description of different species of flax, not about its medicinal uses.
In the first version of his Great Herbal published in 1597, Gerard distinguished two major species—the garden flax and the wild flax—and he divided the wild flax in four sub-species differing by their size, the color of their flower, and the diameter of their stalks, thinner or thicker, in addition to the soils and environment in which they grew: one prefers manured fields, another grows on the sea side, and the last two on rocks close to the sea side. As for their medicinal uses, Gerard attributed to garden flax the properties that Dodoens ascribed to flax, and he considered that the four sub-species of wild flax were not of much use, even though they have the same properties of garden flax.
In the 1636 revised edition of the Herbal, he reproduced the chapter on garden flax and expanded the one on wild flax with four new species, thus presenting a total of eight wild species. When discussing the medicinal uses of the several sub-species of wild flax, he departed from his 1597 statements with new, interesting data. For the sub-species sylvestre catharticum (wild, purgative), he stated that he knew it from an apothecary, without having any personal experience of it. For all the other species, he recognized that he reproduced information from earlier literature and that he actually had not seen any of them in nature.
Two-hundred fifty years late, in Pharmacographia (1874), which was the latest of the manuals on the traditional uses of natural substances before the advent of pharmacochemistry, Friedrich Flückiger and Daniel Hanbury devote a chapter to Semen lini (Lindeseed, Flax Seed). There, they dealt with great detail with its microscopic structure, chemical composition, production and commerce, and adulteration, whereas, for its medicinal applications, they just mentioned that it was used “in the form of a poultice … made either of the seed simply ground or of the pulverized cake”. Notwithstanding, they added that “an infusion of the seeds called Linseed Tea is a common popular demulcent remedy” in perfect continuity with antiquity.
The Solution of the Problem
After centuries of uncertainty, clarification came only recently, about a century ago. In Wilcox’ Materia medica (1913), we do find an explanation to most of the information provided by the ancient literature:
“Linseed is demulcent an emollient. It is mildly diuretic, due to the excretion by the kidneys of the resinous oxidation products formed from the oil, and its preparations, if given in sufficient amount, have a laxative effect.”
If this was not enough, we discover that Galen was right, contrary to ibn Butlan:
“Externally linseed, in the form of poultices, is used for the purpose of applying warmth and moisture, especially in inflammatory conditions, both superficial and deep-seated."
Pursuing the reading, we also understand that, from the Hippocratics to Dioscorides, the Ancients had a good knowledge of the therapeutic action of flaxseed, which they probably obtained from experience without a proper understanding. None of them would have ever imagined that flaxseed would become one day a superfood. It was the merit of recent research to give this enviable status to flaxseed, moving it from the relief of minor pain to an efficacious health promoter, possibly on the assumption that the bread made with it in ancient times was baked on the basis of some sort of intuitive knowledge of this. Whatever the case, it gave flax seed the pedigree it needed to be considered a “traditionally used” food.
On the Georgian archeological material
Kvavadze E. , O. Bar-Yosef, A. Belfer-Cohen, E. Boaretto, N. Jakeli, Z. Matskevich, T. Meshveliani, “30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers”, Science 325 (5946) (11 September 2009): 1359. Correction: Science (16 October 2009), with supporting material at www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/325/5946/1359/DC1
The identification has been discussed. See Bergfjord C., S. Karg, A. Rast-Eicher, M.-L. Nosch, U. Mannering, R. G. Allaby, B. M. Murphy, B. Holst, “Comment on “30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers”, Science 328 (5986) (25 June 2010): 1634b-c, and E. Kvavadze, O. Bar-Yosef, A. Belfer-Cohen, E. Boaretto, N. Jakeli, Z. Matskevich, T. Meshveliani, “Response to Comment on ''30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers”, Science 328 (5986), (25 June 2010): 1634b-c.
Zohary D., M. Hopf, E. Weiss, Domestication of Plants in the Old World. The origin and spread of domesticated plants in south-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin. Fourth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
19th– and early 20th-century literature
Flückiger F. A., D. Hanbury, Pharmacographia. A History of the Principal Drugs of Vegetable origin met with in Great Britain and British India. London: Mascmillan, 1874.
Wilcox, R. W., Materia medica and therapeutics including pharmacy and pharmacology. Eight editions, revised. Philadelphia: P. Balkiston’s Son, 1913.
Flaxseed fiber and oil
Wang H., J. Wang, C. Qiu, Y. Ye, X. Guo, G. Chen, T. Li, Y. Wang, X. Fu, R. H. Liu, “Comparison of phytochemical profiles and health benefits in fiber and oil flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum L.)”, Food Chemistry 214 (2017), pp. 227-233.
Goyal A., V. Sharma, N. Upadhyay, S. Gill, M. Sihag, “Flax and flaxseed oil: an ancient medicine & modern functional food”, Journal of Food Science and Technology 51 (9) (September 2014), pp. 1633–1653.
Flaxseed in human health
Parikh M., T. G. Maddaford, J. A. Austria, M. Aliani, T. Netticadan, G. N. Pierce, “Dietary Flaxseed as a Stragegy for Improving Human Health”, Nutrients 11 (2019), 1171.
Palla A. H., A. Gilani, S. Bashir, N. U. Rehman, “Multiple Mechanisms of Flaxseed: Effectiveness in Inflammatory Bowel Disease”, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2020, 7974835.
Calado A., P. M. Neves, T. Santos, P. Ravasco, “The Effect of Flaxseed in Breast Cancer: A Literature Review”, Frontiers in Nutrition 5 (February 7, 2008), Article 4.
Lowcock E. C., M. Cotterchio, B. A. Boucher, “Consumption of flaxseed, a rich source of lignans, is associated with reduced breast cancer risk”, Cancer Causes Control 24 (2013), pp. 813-816.
Mason J. K., L. U. Thompson, “Flaxseed and its lignan and oil components: can they play a role in reducing the risk of and improving treatment of breast cancer?”, Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 39 (2014), pp. 663-678.
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