Growing from 18 to 36 inches high, blue flax is a semi-erect perennial. Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition discovered the blue flax that now bears his name--Linum lewisii--on a cold, rainy July day in 1806. He collected and catalogued the plant near Montana's Sun River, northwest of the Missouri River and what is now the city of Great Falls. One of thousands of Lewis' botanical discoveries, blue flax is a highly useful plant, according to the Utah State University Extension.
Blue flax grows in woodlands and on prairies and open areas across the northern, southwestern and northwestern Untied States. It flowers between March and September, depending on location. (In large stands, the multiple-stemmed plants can create breathtaking displays of flowers.) Blue flax grows best in sunny areas with dry, sandy soil, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Blue flax has clusters of dainty, light blue flowers with contrasting deeper blue veins and white anthers (pollen holders). Up to 2 inches wide, the five-petaled, five-stamened blooms are self-pollinating. The flower clusters open in ascending order, with individual blooms opening in the morning and closing at dusk.
Becoming smaller as they ascend its stems, blue flax' grayish-green leaves have no stalks. Narrow, rounded or pointed, they're up to 1 inch long. Because they hold moisture so well, its leaves make blue flax a highly fire resistant plant. Crushed, fresh blue flax leaves make an eye-soothing poultice, advises the USU Extension.
Each blue flax blossom produces 10 seeds, with those on the lower stem clusters setting seed first. This allows plants to set seed over an extended period, as the upper flowers continue to bloom. Slippery when wet, the nutritious seeds have a protective capsule and high--up to 45 percent--oil content. They also contain cyanide, and are toxic unless cooked, advises the USU Extension. Processed blue flax oil can substitute for linseed oil in oil-based varnishes and paints. It has soothing medicinal properties and makes an effective lubricant.
Like its leaves, blue flax' stems maintain their moisture well through much of the fire season. Nodding and thin, they contain fiber suitable for processing into string and cloth or weaving into mats and baskets. Allowed to mature into autumn, the fiber becomes acceptable for paper making.
A long taproot means that blue flax doesn't transplant well. It's best grown from seed scattered in the early spring or late fall in heavy soils, or in late fall in light to medium ones, notes the USU Extension.