Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Found in all but south-central North Dakota, this variety of blue flax ranges from James Bay to Alaska and south to Mexico and California.
Unlike the annual common flax grown for oil and fiber, blue flax is a perennial with a long taproot. Plants stand up to three feet tall; up to a dozen stems may grow from a single root. Dozens of bright blue flowers about an inch long occur in drooping branches at the tip of each stem. Leaves are narrow and very numerous.
Livestock do not seem to appreciably influence the abundance of blue flax on native prairie pastures. Its high fiber strength made it useful to natives of the Pacific Northwest for snowshoes and fishnets. Some tribes also used the seeds for food.
The classical Latin name of flax is linum, the word from which the genus and family (Linaceae) names are derived. For many years, blue flax was called Lewis' flax in honor of Captain Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Members of the Expedition first discovered the plant in Montana. Botanists have since ascertained that the plant is a variety of a species long grown in Europe as an ornamental. The specific epithet perenne means "lasting the whole year" in botanical Latin. This variety of blue flax was first described for science by the German botanist Frederick Pursh in his monumental Flora Americae Septentrionalis of 1814. In this flora, which contains the first descriptions of plants found on lands acquired by the Louisiana Purchase, Pursh credited the discovery of 123 noteworthy species to Lewis and Clark.