Flax: A Mix of Beauty and History

My second summer here in Idaho, in 2006, I bought some wildflower seed meant for mountain climates and tossed it out along my driveway. I didn’t know what to expect. I hoped for the best, especially since it was ridiculously expensive and I was living on borrowed funds.

I was disappointed. That first summer very little seemed to grow, let alone produce flowers, despite all the time I spent standing there with a hose, watering the area, while the mosquitoes had their way with me.

Turns out I was impatient. I often am.

Over the next two summers more wildflowers grew and bloomed: lupine, mostly, but a few blanket flowers late in the season, and some poppies. I learned that wild lupine may take a couple years to produce blooms. Once they do, though, they’re efficient self-seeders, spreading quickly.

lupine and flax
Blue flax growing on the edge of a wildflower garden dominated by purple lupine.

Then the recession of 2008 hit, and that December I packed up and moved back to Seattle to ride out the recession for the next few years.

Nature in Idaho didn’t miss me much. When I visited for vacations over the next several years, I noticed more wildflowers in those areas where I’d tossed down seed, despite no one caring for them during the dry summer months. Encouraged, I tossed some leftover wildflower seed in an east-facing area beside the house, again with low expectations but hoping for the best.

When I returned to Idaho full time in May 2014 I saw that nature had taken care of business for me: both areas were teeming with lupine, columbine, and blanket flower. A few poppies tried valiantly to survive, but finally gave up, crowded out by the larger lupine and columbine. Somehow wild strawberries found their way into the mix, as did some fireweed. And a short-term renter planted some chive, which still thrives in a small section of the wildflower garden next to the house.

But the newest addition I found upon my return in 2014 was flax.

flax and lupine
Flax happily blooming at the edges of a wildflower garden of lupine and a few iris.

I didn’t know what it was and assumed – until it flowered – that it was an invasive weed. I’ve no idea whether there were flax seeds in the mix I tossed on the ground or whether they simply and quite naturally flew in on a breeze and decided to stay. However it happened, I’m glad they’re here. Their flowers are an amazingly beautiful blue, opening toward the morning sun before dropping their petals a few hours later. Then they produce more flowers to greet the sun the next day. And so it goes, all summer.

I love that when the boys and I return from early morning runs in the forest we’re greeted by an abundance of cheerful, beautifully-blue blooming flax as we approach the house.

Once I returned to live here full-time in 2014, I decided to let any and all wildflowers take over a small area that I had initially planted with grass, adjacent to the smaller planting area beside the house where I’d tossed the leftover wildflower seeds. The grass area was a pain to mow, being outside the larger dog/fenced yard, and besides, the grass wasn’t thriving without lots of extra water.

To my delight, that originally grass area is now covered in lupine, with flax making an incursion, the grass slowly losing the battle for space dominance. It appears that columbine have pushed the lupine out of the shady area closest to the house where I earlier tossed wildflower seed, so the lupine has claimed most of the earlier lawn space and is now spreading up a short dirt bank toward the field grass, a bank that has been begging for something to make it more cheerful.

I would have thought that in a head-to-head battle the larger lupine would have won the coveted shady space next to the house, but it appears the columbine have a better natural strategy for claiming space, ensuring their survival.

This year, a columbine plant bloomed on that previously barren bank where the lupine are spreading. Thank you, autumn winds of years past, for spreading beauty.

The flax started appearing in less-hospitable areas, e.g. in gravel near the driveway, or on the edges of garden areas already full of lupine and columbine and the edges of a circle of plants in the turnabout of my driveway where day lilies are predominant.

I’ve come to learn that flax are hardy and sneaky; they thrive on the borders, where life’s a little sketchy.

The best part is that all of this happens with little intervention or care on my part. I give the wildflowers some water in the hotter, drier summer months, but otherwise ignore them except to enjoy their gorgeous blooms in spring – the bees cultivating their pollen – and watch them increase their territory by self-seeding every autumn.

For it’s beauty, grit and territorial tenaciousness, though, I’m growing ever fonder of flax.

A History of Flax

As I watched the flax start blooming a couple weeks ago, I wanted to know more about the plant, so I did some basic online research. I’d previously heard of flax seeds, but was otherwise ignorant beyond being familiar with their beautiful flowers in my yard, and that only in recent years. Turns out flax has a fascinating history (if you’re into this kind of thing).

What follows are tidbits about flax cobbled together from Wikipedia (in italics).

painting of flax harvest
Flax harvest painting by Emile Claus, 1904, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium.

Flax (Linum usitatissimum), also known as common flax or linseed, is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. It is a food and fiber crop cultivated in cooler regions of the world. Textiles made from flax are known in Western countries as linen, and traditionally used for bed sheets, underclothes, and table linen. Its oil is known as linseed oil.

Hmm. Some of my favorite work suits – in my earlier life as a practicing attorney – were linen. They wrinkled easily, sure, but were cool in warmer months, and I loved the texture and how they draped on my body. It’s hard to imagine how the flax plant gets turned into fibers and cloths, given how small it is, but never underestimate the ingenuity of humans.

The earliest evidence of humans using wild flax as a textile comes from the present-day Republic of Georgia, where spun, dyed, and knotted wild flax fibers found in Dzudzuana Cave date to the Upper Paleolithic, 30,000 years ago.

Flax fibers taken from the stem of the plant are two to three times as strong as cotton fibers.

Flax was cultivated extensively in ancient Egypt, where the temple walls had paintings of flowering flax, and mummies were embalmed using linen. Egyptian priests wore only linen, as flax was considered a symbol of purity. Phoenicians traded Egyptian linen throughout the Mediterranean and the Romans used it for their sails. As the Roman Empire declined, so did flax production. Eventually, Flanders became the major center of the European linen industry in the Middle Ages. In North America, colonists introduced flax, and it flourished there….

Flax fibers, before and after processing. Photo: Aamiri77, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Flax fiber is soft, lustrous, and flexible; bundles of fiber have the appearance of blonde hair, hence the description “flaxen” hair. It is stronger than cotton fiber, but less elastic. The best grades are used for fabrics such as damasks, lace, and sheeting. Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine and rope, and historically, for canvas and webbing equipment. Flax fiber is a raw material used in the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknotes, laboratory paper (blotting and filter), rolling paper for cigarettes, and tea bags.

The seeds of the flax plant are also useful, both as a commercial-products additive and as a nutritious food.

Flax is grown for its seeds, which can be ground into a meal or turned into linseed oil, a product used as a nutritional supplement and as an ingredient in many wood-finishing products, and used as a drying oil in paints and varnishes and in products such as linoleum and printing inks.

A 100-gram portion [1/2 cup] of ground flaxseed supplies about 534 calories, 41 g of fat, 28 g of fiber, and 20 g of protein. In a 100-gram serving, flaxseed contains high levels (> 19% of the Daily Value, DV) of protein, dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and dietary minerals. Flaxseeds are especially rich in thiamine, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus (DVs above 90%).

Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks the flowers are gorgeous and worthy of honoring.

Flax is the emblem of Northern Ireland and displayed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. In a coronet, it appeared on the reverse of the British one-pound coin to represent Northern Ireland on coins minted in 1986, 1991, and 2014. Flax also represents Northern Ireland on the badge of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and on various logos associated with it.

No wonder I’m drawn to flax; it’s beautiful flowers tug at my Irish heritage.

Native to Idaho?

I wondered if flax was a native wildflower in my area. And if so, I wondered if Native Americans also used its fibers and seeds.

The answer – whether they’re native wildflowers – isn’t clear. Most websites I visited say only the “pale flax” with its nearly white flowers is native, and then only to Eurasia; the websites suggest that all flax found in the US was introduced as a cultivar from the original pale flax of Eurasia.

Yet I found references to Lewis and Clark describing flax found on their expeditions to and from the Pacific Coast in 1806/07. They collected specimens while traveling both directions in both years. They and some of their party mentioned seeing the flowers in their journals, impressed with their beauty.

All of which begs the question: even if the colonists had brought flax with them to the New World, how would it have found its way to the – at that time – untouched-by-European-settlers prairies and grasslands of Montana when Lewis and Clark ventured through? Even if fur trappers (almost all from Canada) had been through that country before Lewis and Clark, they weren’t settlers who would have brought domestic crops like flax to the landscape.

It’s clear Lewis and Clark saw flax growing wild. The plant they found – with its vibrant blue flowers – would in 1814 be named Linum lewisii, after Lewis, now commonly called blue flax. I’m certain it’s the type of flax growing in my wildflower garden here at my house, based on photos. The man giving the plant its name, Frederick Pursh, described it in his 1814 Flora Americae Septentrionalis or Flora of North America. Pursh attached a label to the specimen that reads, “Perennial Flax. Valleys of the Rocky mountains. July 9th 1806.”

I stumbled upon a Montana state website for children interested in the natural world that offered some good information and clues (again, in italics) about blue flax’s status as native wildflower, as well as its use by indigenous peoples.

Lewis’s blue flax, a member of the flax family, or Linaceae, is a perennial wildflower, or forb, that reaches a height of eight to 32 inches. The plant is branched and arises from a woody base and taproot. The stems are slender and seem to always be in motion, even when no breeze is noticeable. The stems are very tough and flexible and can be twisted like string, a good diagnostic characteristic. The leaves are very narrow and are spaced alternately on the stems. The five, clear blue petals form a saucer-shaped flower that is up to an inch across its face. You have to catch them quick though, because the petals only remain on the plant for a day or two. The flowers have five sepals, five stamens and five styles. The oil-rich seeds are found in a ten-celled capsule.

You can find Lewis’s blue flax on well drained to dry soils in the grasslands and prairies, in forest openings, and on open, rocky, wooded hillsides, all the way to alpine ridges. It is distributed throughout western North America and the Great Plains from Alaska to California and Mexico and is rare in Ontario, West Virginia and Kansas.

Various native peoples used flax for cordage and string, as well as for mats, snowshoes, fishing nets and baskets. The blue flax plant also had medicinal uses and was employed as a poultice for swellings, as an infusion for eye problems and gastrointestinal distress and as a wash for the body and hair. Sacagawea’s Shoshone people used flax in this way. Several native tribes of the upper Missouri River region used flax seed as food because of its nutritive value and flavor.

Lewis’s blue flax, our native Montana species [emphasis added], makes an excellent addition to garden and landscape plantings. It is attractive, drought-tolerant, and very easy to grow. In fact, it self-seeds so readily that you may have to keep it from spreading too far.

flax seed pods
Flax seed pods shells, having done their dispersal work for the year alongside my driveway.

I can attest to the truth of that last sentence. Blue flax is hardy and easily spreads via self-seeding. It even thrives in the gravel of my driveway. Where once I worried that I was erroneously pulling it out as a weed, I no longer worry, knowing that I’ll always have plenty of flax in my garden and along my driveway. I beg friends who visit to dig some up and plant it in their own gardens.

Lewis flax can be found from Alaska to California and east to Minnesota in mixed grass, sagebrush, shadscale, piñon-juniper, mountain brush and aspen communities and in openings in coniferous forests.

Flax: nature’s gift, to me, as well as butterflies, bees, birds and deer.

My belief, after this research, is that blue flax – Linum lewisii – is indeed a native wildflower in this part of the west, and is what I’ve got growing in my garden. And that makes me love it even more, especially now that I’m no longer practicing law and wearing suits made of linen.

Feature image: flax growing in the gravel alongside my driveway, natural seeding (no effort or planning on my part).

17 thoughts on “Flax: A Mix of Beauty and History”

  1. Beautiful country. I love Idaho – lived in Idaho when I was a child. Love the Pacific Northwest. Wild flowers are beautiful no matter the state that one lives in. I enjoyed reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love how plants self-seed and then take over a space. Our front yard flowers have taken over the back yard and vice versa. New this year, we have 3 inch cedar trees growing all over the place. This never happened before. We’ve decided to see if we can raise a couple of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I was all set to be witty and send you to the following link after saying something like, “Wouldn’t you have been shocked to see these flowers spring up the first time after being so impatient?”

    But I was today years old when I learned those flowers are IMPATIENS vice IMPATIENTS. So much for that thought.

    When I was younger, my sister and I bought a card trading game we thought was going to be cool. Turned out it was a commodities trading game like what you do on Wall Street. Not being high powered financiers, we quickly lost interest in the game. Not, however, before I noticed that Flax was one of the trading commodities. Your history of Flax is a lot more interesting than that card game. I also like saying the word “Flax”. I think that just went on the future list of dog names.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I love impatiens, but don’t currently have any, maybe because I’m too impatient 🙂

      Flax as a dog name? Hmm. It does at least pass my dog name test: are you willing to yell it out loud in public without embarrassment? It might require some explanation, but at least it’s not embarrassing!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How lovely😍😍😍 by the way, i am a new website user and I saw upon your post title the tags like “wildflowers”, i am using a free plan and had trouble figuring out how to use tags. Like I have made tags but they didn’t show up on my posts, can you help? Thanks in advance.

    Like

    1. It may depend on the theme you’re using for your site. Make sure the theme allows a widget for tags, then add tags to your posts. WordPress offers good help pages, although it can take time and effort to read through them and figure out what you want/need for your own site. Experiment. I visited your page and see that you’re new; keep posting and trying new things. You’ll get the hang of it! Welcome to the WordPress blogging community!

      Liked by 1 person

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