Perennial flax shows potential for soil health and heart health

Researchers with North Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working to see if a particular variety of Lewis flax has the potential to be a useful crop.

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The perennial flax variety Maple Grove shown on May 30, 2021, after having been planted the previous September in a test plot at Comstock, Minnesota, south of Fargo, North Dakota.
North Dakota State University

FARGO, N.D. — It is a crop that has the potential to be good for the human heart and for the farmer’s soil.

Perennial flax is a close relative to the annual flax varieties, but like alfalfa, could produce a crop for multiple years.

Lewis flax is a perennial flax native to the western U.S., including the western Dakotas.

Researchers with North Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working to see if a particular variety of Lewis flax has the potential to be a useful crop, especially on acres of more marginal land.

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Perennial flax variety Maple Grove shown on July 11, 2021, after a previous fall planting at a test plot at Comstock, Minnesota. The variety comes from seed found in Utah.
Courtesy / North Dakota State University

Greta Gamig and Brent Hulke presented some of their research Jan. 27 in Fargo at the Northern Plains Food and Farming Conference.


With a deep root system, perennial flax could improve soil health.

“The product that we would look to annual flax for, the perennial flax also does. And it's a very unique product, said Hulke, acting research leader and research geneticist with the USDA in Fargo. “It’s high in omega-3 fats, which are critical to the human diet and they’re very hard to get in most of our crops.”

A man in flannel speaks at a podium.
Brett Hulke, a plant breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, speaks Friday, Jan. 27, at the Northern Plains Food and Farming Conference in Fargo, North Dakota.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

According to an article on , the benefits include improving heart health, lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and even lowering the risk of some forms of cancer. Omega-3 fatty acids are most associated with fish oil, but flax would be an alternative.

“It would be a sustainable way of being able to consume omega-3s and improve heart health in humans,” Hulke said.

The variety of Lewis flax being studied is called Maple Grove.

“It's actually a variety that was captured from a park in an inner mountain valley in Utah,” Hulke said.

Varieties of Lewis flax have been collected from across the western United States, including Alaska.
Contributed / North Dakota State University

He said that while there are potentially better varieties to be found, Maple Grove is already available as an organic certified seed, but supply is limited and what can be found is expensive.

Hulke’s work as a plant breeder coincides with the research of Gamig, and Burton Johnson at NDSU.


“I've long been interested in the idea of growing perennial crops because I'm interested in long term sustainability of agri-ecosystems and it's a good way to prevent soil erosion, reduced tillage, increase carbon storage in the soil while still producing a valuable crop for farmers,” Gamig said.

The research has been trying to better understand things such as the proper planting depth for the tiny flax seeds, when is the best time to plant, and weed control.

A woman speaks a podium.
Greta Gamig, a professor at North Dakota State University, speaks Friday, Jan. 27, at the Northern Plains Food and Farming Conference in Fargo, North Dakota, about her field trials of perennial flax.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Gamig’s team has been growing perennial flax in research plots near Comstock, Minnesota, in the Red River Valley, and at Absaraka, in central North Dakota.

Among the takeaways she listed:

  • Best planting time was in the fall or “dormant” seeding in early November, just before freeze up. This allows seedlings to get established before hard rains. 
  • There was similar yield in 15-inch and 30-inch rows and the wider rows allow for interseeding.  Interseeding is the introduction of a legume or a more productive grass into an existing pasture sod.
    Trials have shown promise for interseeding with winter wheat. 
  • It is important to plant into a “clean” field free of perennial weeds and with a firm seed bed.

While her initial research is ending this year, she is working on obtaining more grant money to answer her next set of questions.
“So the key questions would be things like, what kind of soil health benefits can you get from growing perennial flax? What are some pollinator services you could get from it? How can we increase the yield? How can we refine the genetics of the plant to have better agronomic potential? What are the optimal fertilization rates that we would need to get a new crop?”

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Perennial flax during different stages of development in North Dakota State University field trials.
Courtesy / North Dakota State University

Those field trials help guide Hulke’s work as a plant breeder.

One of the traits he will be looking for is a flax that has a more uniform maturity time that will lead to less “shattering,” or seeds dropping off the plants before they can be harvested.

One thing he has learned is that Lewis flax shows no problems with tolerance to cold temperatures.


“Now that we know how to grow it, we need to start testing different types of Lewis flaxes, different varieties, and figure out which ones work here,” Hulke said.

Reach Jeff Beach at or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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