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The flax sowing debate


Sowing LIRA - photo

Flax of different dates of sowing, Glenmore, 1927 (ILC&LM Collection)

Traditionally, flax was sown in Ireland in early May when all risk of frost had passed and under the perception that warmer weather improved germination. There was sometimes debate about whether this was the best time to sow the seed. In 1842, Cortland G. Macgregor Skinner, secretary of the Society for the Improvement of the Culture and Growth of Flax in Ireland, said:

“The sowing of flax is much too late in this country; the consequence is that it often suffers by the droughts so prevalent in May, and when it springs, it does so rapidly, as materially to detract from the value of the produce on rich, strong soils … The sowing should, therefore, never be later than from the 15th to the 25th April. As to apprehension of injury from frost, it is groundless, except the frost be intense; for the young plant will resist such degree of it as we usually have at that late season, without risk.” (Belfast News-Letter, 25 March 1842)

Farmers must have taken little heed of this advice because the debate was still ongoing a century later. During the Second World War when production of flax was greatly increased, Professor A. E. Muskett, a plant pathologist and member of the Flax Development Committee, said that drought in late April and early May delayed germination of the flax seed. He outlined several benefits of earlier sowing: more moisture in the soil improved germination, less preparation of the seed bed was required, the crop would be less susceptible to the flax flea beetle, a fungus called ‘flax rust’ was prevented, and the crop would ripen earlier. (Belfast News-Letter, 22 March 1944)

LIRA flax - photo

One of the groups that experimented with different dates of sowing flax was the Linen Industry Research Association (LIRA), based at Glenmore, near Lambeg. This photograph and chart from 1930 shows flax sown at different dates from mid-April to early June. It appears to vindicate the traditional date of sowing flax in Ireland, with the stems for early May (C and D) showing the best growth rate. (ILC&LM Collection)

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