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All About Flax

closeup of flax

By Marianne Willburn, gardening expert, landscape designer and writer.

In the last few years, health food junkies have been eating flax seeds by the bushel for extra fiber and protein. Yet man’s love affair with flax is hardly new.

Beautiful and Useful

The cultivation and use of flax for linen has been with us for millennia – wrapping pharaohs in their tombs, clothing movie stars on far-off sunny beaches, and providing an expensive backing for fine needlework of all types. The romantic invocation of ‘flaxen hair’ has inspired many a poet, artist and composer; and home improvement addicts instinctively know the scent of linseed oil when they smell it.

Bottom line, it’s an incredibly useful plant…but it’s also an incredibly beautiful and sturdy plant for the garden – and it’s incredibly easy to grow.

The plant’s botanical genus, Linum, is an easy one to file away in the memory banks: Think linen, think Linum. The species which brings us linen, oil and smoothie fodder is not one of the species we tend to use in the garden, but if you grow garden varieties, you’d definitely recognize it in a lineup.

American Meadows sells seeds of both annual and perennial species of flax in scarlet and blue, but plants can also be found in shades of white, yellow and pink. Growing methods are similar for both, but first, you’ll need to decide which one works best for your garden, meadow or other sunny space.

Annual or Perennial?

Scarlet flax (L. grandiflorum var. rubrum) is an annual species growing 15-30” tall that holds bright red saucer-shaped flowers above gray-green wispy foliage in late spring through summer. The silky blooms are small (1-2”), but there are many of them. And, if you are living in a cooler climate, you can cut the plant back by half its height after it blooms and benefit from a re-bloom soon after.

Succession planting every two weeks can also extend your bloom season, but as summer heat intensifies, flax will tend to flag.

American Meadows also sells a perennial species of blue flax native to the United States and discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition (L. lewisii). Blue flax is an upright perennial plant very able to hold its own in a meadow planting, but is still characteristically delicate, and does well when allowed to float through other complimentary plants. The one-inch flowers are almost translucent blue, resemble geranium flowers, and have light lines radiating from the center.

scarlet flax
<a href="/wildflower-seeds/wildflower-species/scarlet-flax-seeds">Scarlet Flax</a> is quick growing & feline-friendly!

Both scarlet and blue flax sow prolifically, so whether you choose to sow once or sow every year, Mother Nature will be doing a bit of sowing with you.

How to Sow

Flax is a quick growing plant (particularly the annual varieties), but takes time to germinate – sometimes as much as three weeks. Don’t soak your seeds before sowing, or, as any health food lover will tell you, the seeds will become a mucilaginous mess.

You can choose to direct sow in disturbed or raked soil in late fall or early spring, or indirectly sow in seed flats 6-8 weeks before the first spring frost. If you are sowing into flats, be careful to transplant before the roots have become too visible, as flax resents root disturbance and transplanting. Doing so with the most soil around the roots is your best bet.

Choose a sunny site, and don’t worry about amending the soil with rich ingredients. Flax is a terrific choice for average sandy (even rocky) well-draining soil. ‘Well-draining’ is the key part of that sentence. Flax will not tolerate wet sites or excessively heavy clay soil.

Broadcast the seed at a rate of ¼ pound per 1,200 square feet (1/3 oz./100 sq. ft) and rake in to a light depth of only 1/8 inch. Tamp down well to make good soil/seed contact and water the area well. Thin when seedlings have developed true leaves to four inches, and be careful as you do so, remembering not to disturb the roots of those you wish to leave in situ.

blue flax in meadow
In addition to being incredibly useful, blue flax is beautiful in any wildflower meadow.

Care through the Season

Though flax grows well in full sun sites with rocky, difficult soil and dry conditions, it may start to flag during very hot summers. Cut the plant back by half and you’ll encourage new foliage, a tidy habit and you may see a re-bloom. If it’s too hot, you might see the characteristic ‘flaxen’ appearance of the stems, growing pale yellow under the hot summer sun. Next season, find a sunny site with some afternoon shade and you may be able to keep your flax blooming longer.

In the early fall, or when flax has gone dormant, you can cut the stems back to the ground, leaving a few seed heads to re-seed for next year.

There is something extremely satisfying about telling people about flax and other useful plants in your garden. Visitors love to hear the story behind a particular plant – particularly when they are familiar with some of the ways it is used outside the garden.

With flax, it might be quicker to list the ways it hasn’t.

About the Author: Marianne Willburn is a columnist, blogger and author of the new book "Big Dreams, Small Garden: Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space." Originally from California, she now gardens in Virginia – read more at

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