The common flax is one of several species of flax, some of which are indigenous to the Maltese islands. It is an important crop plant that is cultivated as a food and as a fibre crop. Different varieties are grown in gardens.
The plant belongs to a family consisting of about 200 species that are found in both temperate and subtropical parts of the world.
Flax flowers are usually either blue or yellow, although in some species, the flowers can be red, white or pink.
Locally, seven species of flax have been recorded.
One indigenous species, the ascending flax (kittien aħmar), has not been seen for many years and is believed to be extinct in Malta while the pale flax (kittien ikħal) is very rare. On the other hand, the upright flax (kittien tal-imħarbat) and the southern flax (kittien isfar), both of which have yellow flowers, are common.
Flax fibre has been used to produce linen since ancient Egyptian times but the importance of the plant as a source of fibre decreased in the 19th century, when cotton became more popular – even though flax fibres are much stronger than cotton.
The seeds of the flax plant are the source of linseed oil (żejt tal-kittien), which is used as a nutrient as it is high in alpha- linolenic acid. This oil is, however, also used in paints, putty and varnishes, on its own or mixed with other oils, resins or solvents.
The largest flax growers are Canada and China, but significant amounts are also produced by India and the US.
The flax plant is the national flower of Belarus, and Northern Ireland has adopted it as its emblem. This article was published in The Times on 10 April 2010.