Sunday, May 16, 2010

Wild Flax

I finally got around to buying myself a wildflower field guide, so I can start identifying the many flowers I have come across and photographed over the years.

Of course this has turned out to be much harder than I thought it would be. Like birds and insects, wildflowers also have too many species to fit into a practically sized field guide. Like birds and insects, wildflowers can also look different at different times of the year or at different stages of their lives, and can look different in different parts of the country. Wildflowers can also have completely different colors within the same species.

But I am pretty sure the flower pictured above is Wild Flax (Linum lewisii). I found it in Red Rocks Park outside of Denver. Actually, the common name of this flower is Wild Blue Flax, but since it can also be found in white, yellow and red, I am going to simplify things for us wildflower newbies and just call it Wild Flax.

I was lucky to find such a bright blue specimen - the photo in the field guide and most of the photos I found online were pale blue. What gives it away as Wild Flax are the shape and number of petals and stamen (5 of each), the shape and color of the veins in the petals, the linear shaped leaves, and the drooping stems.

Wild Flax is the untamed uncle of Common Flax, the crop plant that gives us linen fibers, flax seed, and linseed oil. Here is a cross-sectional photo of a flax stem from Wikimedia. The white fibers just inside the outer layer (marked "BF") are the "bast fibers", which are used for making linen.

Bast fibers are the fibers that give structural support to the stems of some types of plants. Through a series of physical and chemical processes, the bast fibers are removed from the rest of the stem. Here is what the bast fibers look like (also from Wikimedia), ready to be spun into linen:

Linen is believed to be the first plant fiber used for making fabric, about 30,000 years ago. I think it is amazing that our ancestors figured out how to do this.

I can understand them making clothing out of fur or wool, since they saw how it kept animals warm. And I can understand why they would eat certain plants, possibly after watching animals safely eat them. But to look at a beautiful blue flower and say, "I bet I can extract the fibers from that stem and make myself a loincloth" is a great intellectual leap. We all owe that person a debt of gratitude!


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