This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Smooth and glaucous, one to two and a half feet high, branching above, leafy; leaves linear to linear-lanceolate, three to eighteen lines long, acute; stipular glands none; flowers large, blue, in few-flowered corymbs, or scattered on the leafy branches on slender pedicels; sepals three to five nerved, ovate, acute, or obtuse, one and a half two and a half lines long; capsule globose, acute,exceeding the sepals, at length dehiscnt by ten valves, the prominent false partition long-ciliate; fruiting pedicels erect or deflexed. (Botany of California. See also Porter's Flora of Colorado, Watson's Botany of the 40th Parallel, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
"Oh, the goodly flax-flower! It groweth on the hill, And be the breeze awake or sleep,
It never standeth still. It seemeth all astir with life,
As if it loved to thrive, As if it had a merry heart Within its stem alive!"
THE full force of these lines of Mary Howitt never impressed itself so strongly on the writer as when, high up "the hill" in the Rocky Mountains, he gathered for the first time a wild specimen of the plant now illustrated. It was in a particularly barren spot, where even the few things that grow in this inhospitable region hardly dared to risk themselves; but the Linum perenne was doing beautifully, expanding its large, blue flowers to the morning sun "as if it loved to thrive" even in so dreary a place. It is found in quite low elevations, but increases in abundance as it travels up the hillsides. 'I he expression that "it never standeth still" applies better to our Flax than to the closely allied European speeie.s of Linum usilatissiimtni, or "most useful" Flax, of which Mrs. Howitt wrote, and which is an annual, dying after the seed has ripened, while ours is a perennial species, the plant continuing on from year to year. Its continuous growth is, indeed, remarkable. In the early spring we find it little more than a small tuft of green leaves, but it soon throws up from each bud a flower-shoot which by May is covered with blossoms. It does not commence to bloom till it has made its full length, and then the uppermost branches flower first. After this the lateral ones open continuously from the side branches downwards. Those branches which flower first naturally mature first. By September the flowering stems have nearly all ripened, and commenced to turn brown. Other branches, however, still continue to push out from the lower buds on the main shoots; but as if they had an instinctive knowledge that there would not be time to ripen seed before the winter sets in, they make no attempt to flower. These late-growing shoots are just as vigorous as those which, in the early part of the season, threw up flower-stems, and their office seems to be to elaborate sap, and store up nourishment in the crown for next year's floral growth. It is, no doubt, this autumn crop of growth which is the real agent in making our Flax a perennial, while the closely allied European species is an annual. If the latter had its flower-stalks cropped so as to force it to throw out a late, leafy growth below, it would, probably, be as perennial as the American species, and still more "astir with life" than the poetess describes it. The plant in the writer's garden, brought many years ago from Colorado, and from which our drawing was made, is one of the most interesting in the collection, in early winter, by the mass of living green shoots pushing up so freely among the mature and dry stems.
These seed-bearing branches of our Perennial Flax have assumed a new interest since the writings of Mr. Darwin appeared. He finds that some of the flowers of this species have styles longer, and others shorter, than the stamens, and that only the pollen of one plant carried to the flowers of the other plant will enable it to perfect seed. Mr. Darwin says the two forms of stamens "stand at different heights, so that the pollen from the anthers of the longer stamens will adhere to one part of an insect's body, and will afterwards be brushed off by the rough stigmas of the longer pistils, whilst pollen from the anthers of the shorter stamens will adhere to a different part of the insect's body, and will afterwards be brushed off by the stigmas of the shorter pistils, and this is what is required for the legitimate fertilization of both forms. We know that its own pollen is as powerless on the stigma as so much inorganic dust." ('Different Forms of Flowers," 1877, P.98.) The plant from which we made our illustration has, however, been growing: separately and alone from 1873 to 1878, and has no opportunity to receive pollen from other plants, but it nevertheless produces seeds in tolerable abundance every year. This shows that, while in England only cross-fertilization will produce seed, climatal influences bring about different results in America, and the whole indicates that much more remains to be discovered about the habits of plants, and their "sources of action," than has yet been found out. Dr. Gray thinks the American Perennial Flax may not be heterostyled as the Asiatic form is, and may, therefore, be a distinct species.
The Perennial Flax affords much interest in its flowering. The young tips of the flower-shoots droop down. When the buds are ready to expand, they assume a perpendicular position during the night, and by morning the flowers open, turning towards the rising sun. Long before noon the petals have performed their functions and have withered away. Mr. Darwin has noticed a peculiar twisting of the pistils, which places the stigmatic surface towards the circumference of the flower. This, however, he finds confined to the long-styled forms. No doubt many more discoveries of interest would reward careful observers of the behavior of this plant.
The specific name perenne indicates the most striking distinction between our species, and the one which yields the ordinary Flax. This, however, is not all the distinction, nor would it be regarded as in itself sufficient for botanical science to build on, as, in the present condition of botanical knowledge, so much importance is not attached to slight variations as there was in old times. The native countrv of the common Flax, Liuum usitatissimum, is not known, and it is not at all improbable that it is only a form selected and used for cultivation. Flax has been grown for ages for its fibre, of which fine linen fabrics arc made; and in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, we read that Pharaoh clothed Joseph in fine linen; and again, in the fourth chapter of Exodus, that, when the plagues came on the Egyptians, the smiting of the Flax crops was one of them. The plant mentioned in the Bible was formerly supposed to be identical with the common Flax; but seed-vessels found in old bricks and similar material from ancient Egypt show that the Egyptian Flax was not the L. usitatissimum, but rather L. angns-tifolium, which is also a perennial species, and scarcely, if at all, different from our L. perennc. There is, besides, another perennial form, native to Eastern Asia, the L. perenne Sidiricum, also scarcely different; and all this renders it highly probable that the true Flax is a descendant of our species. An additional proof that it may have had this origin is the fact that the common Flax varies remarkably in itself. At the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, a great number of varieties came from Russia and Holland, differing as much among themselves as the whole, as a species differs from our perennial Flax. The probable close connection of our plant with the linen of the mummies and the literature of the ancient people will give our plant a new interest in the eyes of the lover of American wild flowers.
Our plant seems first to make its appearance near the Mexican boundary, whence it traverses the whole continent between the Pacific and the Mississippi, extending through its several varieties to Europe and Asia,