The flax family, although not an exceptionally large family worldwide, contains plants of significant economic value. Linseed oil, flaxseed and fiber for cordage are a few of the commercial uses of cultivated flax.
Blue flax (Linum lewisii) is a flax native to North America and today is found throughout the West as far west as the Mississippi River and throughout most of Canada. Also commonly called Lewis flax or prairie flax, L. lewisii closely resembles common flax (L. perenne), a European native. Common flax has escaped cultivation in the United States and has established itself locally throughout the country. These two species are so similar that some taxonomists classify blue flax as a subspecies of common flax.
Blue flax is a perennial that derives from a slightly woody rootstem and is thus often considered a sub-shrub. The unbranched stems are long and slender and are often leaning. Many small, narrow, pointed leaves without stalks (sessile) line the stems. As the blue flax plant matures it loses its leaves. Blue flax flowers are pale blue veined in darker blue and are borne in racemes (unbranched inflorescences with stalked flowers blooming from the bottom up). Blue flax is a plant of fives – five petals, five sepals and five stamens. The style (part of the female reproductive organ) is longer than the stamens (male reproduction) and is topped with five spherical stigmas (tips of female organ). Blue flax flowers open after sunrise and lose their petals later in the day. Sunshine determines how long the flax flower retains its petals, with the petals dropping later on cloudy days. The fruit is a 10-celled capsule (multiple of five) containing one or two seeds per cell.
Found among mixed grasses and sagebrush, in openings in woodlands and coniferous forests and among mountain brush, blue flax does have fair forage value for livestock in the spring. Birds utilize blue flax seeds while bees gather its nectar. Because blue flax establishes quickly from seeds it is often used for erosion control and beautification.
Indigenous tribes used an infusion of blue flax as an eyewash and a hair rinse. The seeds of blue flax are edible but must be cooked before being eaten, since in the raw state they contain cyanide, which is destroyed upon heating. No thanks!
Blue flax has gone through many scientific name changes since it was first collected by Meriwether Lewis in 1806. Some taxonomists still continue to use the genus name Adenolinum for blue flax.
These blue flax plants were photographed at Willow Creek Campground (Lassen County CA) and Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA).