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Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society

Focusing on native plants and conservation in North Idaho

Wild Blue Flax 

Liaum perenne var lewisii


Original Species Paper


Lois Wythe


Wild cousin of the commercially important Linum usitatissimum, our native blue flax is beloved of the bees and butterflies, wild flower gardeners, and hikers who happen upon a patch of this slender, graceful plant with its lovely pale blue flowers. It also charmed Captain Meriwether Lewis when he came upon it in his exploration of the north Idaho territory — and it is his name which distinguishes our native blue flax.

The lovely blue flowers last for only a day, but are so quickly replaced with new blossoms that the plant appears to be continually in bloom most of the summer, to be followed by the rounded capsules which split to release the familiar black seeds.  The photocopy above, made in late September, shows the single erect stem, branching toward the top, with its hanging seedcapsules, some of which have already opened. The earlier delicate blue flowers, about one and one half inches across, have five petals, delicately striped and minutely scalloped on the edges. Leaves are alternate, without stalks, pale green, and spearhead shaped.

The habitat is described in PLANTS OF SOUTHERN BRITISH COLUMBIA AND THE INLAND NORTHWEST as "scattered and frequent at low to (less commonly) mid elevations throughout the dry climates of the region, in dry grasslands, sagebrush steppes, and open ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests." It is frequently seen along railroad tracks. Linum is from the Greek, meaning a thread or rope.


The Flax family has a long, long history. Records reveal that in ancient Babylon flax was already being grown for food in 3000 B.C. Famed Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C) recognized its value in relieving intestinal discomfort. He is credited with saying often that one should "Let food be your medicine and your medicine be your food." Certainly Flax qualifies on both counts. Pliny went even further and said "What department is there to be found of active life in which flax is not employed?" and many medieval herbalists described the making of linen-giving Flax one of its major important uses.


Undoubtedly these ancients referred to Linum usitatissimum which is the flax of commerce to this day and not to the Linum perenne to which Meriwether Lewis' name was appended, and it is this latter variety that we have planted at the Arboretum. However, the colonists would have been very familiar with the useful Flax and probably brought plants with them for food and cloth and perhaps even with commerce in mind.  It was cultivated as an annual crop. While we cannot call the L. usitatissimum truly "native", the constituents and uses of both are the same—providing food and medicine for humans and animals, and fibers which can be spun into linen thread. Who has not used linseed oil as a drying agent in paints and varnishes, car wax and polishes of various kinds?  An element of this oil is even used in malting oilcloth and linoleum. Leftovers in flaxseed oil are made into a fattening agent for cattle.


While the food and medicinal uses of flax have been known for thousands of years, it has only been recently that the empirical evidence has been sub­stantiated through clinical tests and scientific studies throughout the world.  The powerful benefits of this reasonably priced food and medicine are finally being given their due and are being hailed in newspaper articles, TV productions, books and lectures and have moved well out of alternate therapies and into the mainstream of nutrition and medicine, even to being hailed as a defense against cancer. In addition, their culinary virtues are being revealed by the best of bakers and cooks, and wondrous recipes are being presented to us, using both whole and ground flax seeds, and the oil.

Flaxseed oil is the highest single source for the valuable omega-3 fatty acid — 50 to 60 per cent. The oil spoils rapidly, particularly when exposed to heat, and should always be purchased in small quantities and with a label which indicates the product was cold-pressed, and gives the date. The oil should be consumed within three weeks; hence the small quantities. For more information about flax, and particularly for the exceptional recipes (with color photos) which it contains, may I recommend the small booklet by Siegfried Gursche, FANTASTIC FLAX, published by Alive Books of Vancouver, Canada, for $9.95.  (I found my copy at Truby's Healthfood Store in Sandpoint.)


The medicinal uses of Flax have been known for centuries and lie primarily in the seeds. (Note that immature seed pods are poisonous.) The seeds are said to contain about 40% fixed oil, mucilage, wax, tannin, gum and protein. The crushed seeds, known as linseed meal, are made into a useful poultice, especially if combined with mustard, for abscesses, ulcers, and deep inflammations. Some herbalists add lobelia seeds for treating boils. Linseed oil is a frequent ingredient in cough medicines. Tea made of about an ounce of seed to a pint of boiling water and taken with lemon juice and a little honey is often recommended for colds and coughs. Linseed is a well-known remedy for constipation. A teaspoon of seeds should always be followed by up to two glasses of water which will cause the seeds to swell and produce a gentle laxative. Many people routinely add the seeds to breakfast cereal daily — remembering the necessary high fluid intake.


There  are many traditions associated with flax.  In magic, it protected against sorcerers, and it is said that Bohemians believed that if children danced in the flax field, they would become very beautiful when they were grown. For a very fine look at medicinal and traditional uses, the discussion of flax in Maude Grieve's A MODERN HERBAL is a-wonderful reference, now accessible in Dover's reprint of this classic.


There are many colorful descriptions of the making of linen thread in historical literature, but the process is much the same now as that used by the early makers of homespun linen.  The linsey-woolsey of colonial times was not a very fine fabric, but it was durable.  Rodale's ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLCPEDIA OF HERBS gives a clear description of the process:

"The flax plants, which have been pulled and allowed to dry (with the seed heads cut or combed out), are soaked in water for several weeks to rot the woody stems around the fibers, a process called retting. When the stems are sufficiently rotted, the plants are dried. Then a device called a flaxbrake is used to break the stems in several places. Next a wooden swinging knife is used to scrape or "scotch"the broken stems, removing the woody shards of stem from the fibers. These are passed through the teeth of a hetchel, straightening them and pulling out all the remaining stem pieces. The resulting material resembles a fine, fluffy horsetail. The fibers are then spun into yarn."

In the landscape, flax is especially grown in herb and flower gardens as an ornamental, particularly in borders, since the plant grows only a couple of feet tall and is in bloom for a long period. L. perenne is a perennial for only about three or four years; but since it self-seeds prolifically, it seems much more long-lasting. L. usitatissimum is an annual and is the farm-crop flax.

 "What department is there to be found of active life in which flax is not employed? In what production of the earth are there greater marvels than this?" —Pliny 100 A.D.