The Clerk in the Country

Friday 13th November 2020

Not just a pretty colour

The last crop to be combined around here in “the worst harvest in living memory” was linseed; one of my favourites, not just because its flowers turn the fields a most attractive blue, or that I enjoy it sprinkled on my breakfast cereal, or even for its contribution to the thwack of leather on willow, but because it once provided me with a subject for a university dissertation.

Linum usitatissimum is such a useful plant that it needs two names: flax when grown for its fibre and linseed for seeds and oil.  Mankind has been cultivating it for thousands of years.  Stronger than cotton, linen was used by the Egyptians to wrap mummies, and it still provides best sheets and table cloths today.

Linseed is a fast growing plant and can be sown as late as April.  Farmers resorted to it this year after the terribly wet autumn and early spring had prevented the planting of cereals, but the very dry spell in late spring held up germination and some fields were still to be harvested in October.  By then the tough fibrous stems would have soaked up enough autumn showers to be a real challenge for a combine harvester, like a tangle of wet canvas.  Let’s hope the combine driver likes blue flowers, or linseed on his cereal, or plays cricket!