Flax belongs to the genus Linum, one of 10 genera in the family Linaceae. The genus contains more than 100 annual and perennial species. Cultivated flax belongs to the species L. usitatissimum, and its varieties are of two types: one is grown for oil and the other for fiber.
In Canada, at present, oilseed flax is the main commercially produced crop. But there is a growing trend back to natural fibers for both industrial applications and textiles. This trend will only continue as pressures increase to produce materials that are recyclable or decomposable.
As a result, Western Canadian businesses are realizing the value of flax straw, and are developing technologies to handle oilseed straw and produce fiber from it for industrial purposes. The extraction and processing of fiber from existing flax straw residue and the dedicated planting of fiber flax will create new production and value-adding opportunities for Western Canadian flax producers.
Three major breeding programs develop flax and solin varieties for Canada. These are the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada program located at the Morden Research Centre in Morden, Manitoba; the Crop Development Centre program located at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and the Agricore United program at the Morden Research Centre. Additionally, some seed companies are introducing cultivars from other countries. Disease resistance to rust and wilt has been emphasized by all the programs in order to keep these problems under control. Thus, all registered flax and solin varieties are resistant to rust and must have moderate resistance to fusarium wilt. Since 1973, when the last outbreak of rust occurred, the resistance to flax rust has continued to hold.
All flax varieties registered in Canada are brown-seeded and have high levels of alpha-linolenic fatty acid (ALA). Solin varieties, with less than 5% ALA, produce polyunsaturated edible oil similar to sunflower oil and, in Canada, must have yellow seed. Unregistered yellow-seeded flax varieties, with high levels of alpha-linolenic acid, are grown under contract for use in edible products and for the health food market.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Program
Since the early 1900s, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and its predecessors have been active in developing new flax varieties for Canada and, in particular, for the Canadian Prairies. The initial program at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa produced varieties such as Diadem, Ottawa 770B, Ottawa 829C and Novelty. During the 1950s, this program was particularly active, releasing varieties such as Linott, Raja and Rocket. The 1950s and 1960s also marked the beginning of an evolution and transition in flax breeding in Canada as a new program was initiated at the Indian Head Experimental Farm and the Winnipeg Cereal Breeding Laboratory, which led to the development of the variety Cree. As well, in Alberta, in the 1960s, a breeding program was conducted at the Fort Vermillion Experimental Farm and Beaverlodge Research Station, producing the variety Noralta, the predominant variety grown in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The breeding programs were eventually consolidated and moved to Winnipeg in 1960, finally moving to Morden, Manitoba where they still exist. The varieties Dufferin, McGregor, NorLin, NorMan, AC Linora, AC McDuff , AC Emerson, AC Carnduff and AC Lightning have been released by the Morden Research Centre.
The focus of the breeding efforts at Morden has been to develop improved flax cultivars for the Prairies. Consequently, most of the cultivars developed have wide adaptation to prairie conditions. The breeding program is devoting its attention to the development of new cultivars with increased yield potential, decreased time to maturity, better lodging resistance, chlorosis tolerance, improved disease resistance and improved seed quality by increasing seed oil content and ALA content.
Crop Development Centre
A modest breeding program was carried out at the University of Saskatchewan from the 1920s through the 1960s, which produced the varieties Royal and Redwood 65. The program was enlarged in 1974 when the Crop Development Centre (CDC) initiated a flax breeding program. It has since produced seven cultivars: Vimy, Somme, Flanders, CDC Normandy, CDC Valour, CDC Arras and CDC Bethune. Other varieties produced at the Crop Development Centre include Andro (tissue-culture-derived) and CDC Triffid (first transgenic flax cultivar). Both of these varieties have now been deregistered and are not commercially available.
The breeding program is developing varieties for Western Canadian conditions, with particular emphasis on Saskatchewan. Improved yield potential, earlier maturity, good agronomic performance, disease resistance, quality characteristics, greater seed weight and lodging resistance are some of the breeding objectives.
Crop Production Service
In 1987, a solin breeding program was initiated by Biotechnica Canada in cooperation with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation to develop low ALA flax, subsequently known as solin. In 1990, United Grain Growers Ltd. (UGG) purchased Biotechnica’s interest in the program and moved the program from Calgary to the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Morden Research Centre and the UGG research and evaluation farm at Rosebank, Manitoba. This breeding program has produced the solin cultivars, LinolaTM 947, 989 and 1084.
Overall the program is committed to the development of varieties with superior agronomic performance and disease resistance as well as enhanced quality (value) characteristics.