The Flower With Flaxen Flair

Winged flax (Linum alatum) ~ Brazoria County, Texas

In his poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus,”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes the young daughter of the prideful captain: 

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.

It’s unlikely Longfellow was comparing the child’s eyes to any of our native blue flaxes (such as Linum lewisii ), since none are found in the northeast. He may have been familiar with the introduced, blue-flowered species cultivated for food and fiber, L. usitatissimum, or even with L. perenne, another introduced species sometimes included in gardens for the blue accents it provides.

Whatever the source of his analogy, the comparison is apt — at least, for eyes. In extolling the flaxen-haired beauties of myth and history, poets obviously are referencing a different sort of flax. When I discovered the yellow-orange flaxes native to Texas, I thought they might have given rise to the expression.

Berlandier’s yellow flax (Linum berlandieri) ~ Gillespie County, Texas

As it happens, neither flower is the source of the expression ‘flaxen-haired.’ During processing, fiber from the plant’s stalks becomes soft, lustrous, and flexible, and takes on the appearance of blonde hair. The use of ‘flaxen’ to mean “the pale yellow colour of dressed flax” appeared in the mid-15th century, and literary references to flaxen hair appear as early as the 1520s.

Published in 1852, Leconte de Lisle’s Chansons écossaises, or Scottish Songs, included the poem La fille aux cheveux de lin, or “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.”

Sur la luzerne en fleur assise,
Qui chante dès le frais matin?
C’est la fille aux cheveux de lin,
La belle aux lèvres de cerise.
L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.
Sitting amidst the alfalfa in flower,
Who sings in the cool morning hour?
It is the girl with the flaxen hair,
The beauty with cherry lips so fair.
Love, in the summer sun so bright,
Sang with the lark for sheer delight
Berlandier’s yellow flax (Linum berlandieri) ~ Bandera County, Texas

Between late 1909 and early 1910, French composer Claude Debussy included his composition “La fille aux cheveux de lin”  in a first book of Préludes. A simple, glowing composition inspired by the poem, it suits our flaxen-petaled flax perfectly. You may recognize Debussy’s piece; you’ll surely enjoy it.

La fille aux cheveux de lin


Comments always are welcome.


49 thoughts on “The Flower With Flaxen Flair

      1. Thanks, Pit. They’re quite different from prickly pear flowers, but the color combination still brings the cactus to mind. I’ve never seen the two plants together, but it’s not impossible that I will some day. If I do, I’ll take a photo.

    1. This was an interesting post to put together. I’ve always liked these pretty flax flowers, and it was fun to see how they’ve been used in poetry. They’re really quite small — just about an inch across — but the details show nicely in the photos. I’m glad you like them.

  1. As soon as I saw the post’s title I figured it referred to Debussy’s piano piece. The end of your post made the connection explicit. I’d never read the poem the Debussy was based on, so I’m glad you included a link to it. You may have noticed in the French you quoted that the word for flax is lin, the same as the root of the Latin linum that botanists adopted as the genus name for flax plants. Our linen traces back to the same source.

    1. I went through several titles before this one came to me this morning. As sometimes happens, the title helped to pull together the post. As for lin, it helped me sort through translations of the poem. Some online sources translate the word as ‘golden’ or ‘yellow.’ That didn’t seem right to me. Eventually I figured out the relationship between lin and linum, and the better translation became obvious. Now that you’ve mentioned ‘linen,’ that relationship’s obvious, too.

    1. And I learn something every time I create a new post. This one led me down more than the usual number of rabbit trails, but it was great fun.

    1. Thanks so much. I have a hard time choosing ‘favorite’ flowers — there are so many beauties! — but I’ve always enjoyed these, and the way they mark the transition from spring into summer.

    1. I wondered if anyone was using ‘flax’ or ‘flaxen’ as a descriptor for their hair coloring products these days, and it seems not. You can have everything from the traditional blonds to honey, champagne, and butterscotch, but no flax. L’Oreal needs to get with it.

      These flowers are great performers, for sure. I nearly missed them in a usual spot in Brazoria this year. The county had mowed, and when the flowers came up, they were only a couple of inches tall, instead of their usual several. But they bloomed — hardy stock.

        1. So many people think ‘vintage’ is anything before last Tuesday, it’s hard to say. Memory loss is one thing; a refusal of memory is something else.

  2. All lovely photographs, but the curving stem and petal contours of the second image are very appealing. The flax I’ve seen in my area is an escaped garden variety, Linum perenne, blue flax.

    1. I’m hard pressed to choose among these images, but I do like that second one. There’s a time to shoot straight down into the heart of a flower (your recent dandelion comes to mind), but these side views are interesting to me, and certainly challenging.

      I spent some time last night with BONAP, going through the flax species one by one to see which Longfellow might have known. The only thing I’m certain of is that I know a lot more about the Linum genus than I did a couple of days ago!

  3. How pretty, and of course, I love the Debussy! That’s one I didn’t play, but I seem to remember it from my cartoon-watching days. Somehow I always think of “flaxen” as an old-fashioned word, one that depicts a paler yellow than this flower. I could be wrong, though. Funny how we get a notion stuck in our brains that doesn’t easily give up its grip. Happy Memorial weekend, Linda!

    1. ‘Flaxen’ is old-fashioned. I found some dictionaries referring to it as a literary term that’s found mostly in older works. If you asked me to name someone who had flaxen hair, I’d probably mention Rapunzel!

      You’re exactly right that the color of the processed stalks, the part of the plant that gave rise to the term flaxen, is much lighter. Some of the images I’ve seen show it as more the color of linen — a word that’s also rooted in the lin that gave us the name of the genus. In fact, linen cloth is made from the fibers of the flax plant. It’s a great summer fabric, too — important to think about as we move into the hot part of the year. Memorial Day’s the traditional start of the summer season, after all. Enjoy it!

        1. I know. I have one pair of linen shorts, and they mostly hang in my closet, just because they’re fully lined, need to be iron, and so on and so forth. Still — a nice linen suit? Perfection.

  4. An interesting post. It makes me wonder how many of us read poetry any more? I was talking about this a to a friend of mine recently and he admits that he does not (he has a Ph.D in political science). He says he has not read a poem since grade school and I suspect that may be true of many. I am sure that the president of your country does pick up his anthology of poems too often!

    1. One of the most interesting theories I’ve read about the decline of poetry involves the modern movement from spoken to written verse. There was a time when rhythm and rhyme were integral parts of poetry: part of what made memorization and recitation both easier and more pleasing.

      When more modern poets began depending on visual effects, such as the arrangement of words on a page or (most famously with e e cummings) odd punctuation, poetry reading and recitation declined. Some of that’s changing now, and there seems to be a renewed appreciation for more structured — and hence more accessible — poems.

      When I was in fifth grade, my teacher insisted that each of us memorize one poem per week. It certainly embedded the habit of poetry in us, if not a love of it. Today, she’d probably be fired.

    1. Sometimes, the wind helps rather than hinders. I kept the flower bent a bit, and I thought the curve was especially pleasing. I’m glad it pleased you.

  5. Those flaxes are lovely. I haven’t seen either of the introduced species you reference here but I am sure they are in gardens at least.
    Funny, the line “the girl with the flaxen hair” brought to mind “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes”. Can’t say there’s a connection except in my tired head right now.

    1. I suspect more than your head is tired at this point. If I were to guess, I’d guess that you’ve spent some significant hours tracking down your wildflowers, and even more time sorting through images.

      We truly are of the same generation. When I read “kaleidoscope eyes,” it took a nanosecond for the song to start playing in my head. I think you’re right about the introduced blue flax. There are several cultivars that are beautiful, deep blues, too, but I really do prefer these yellow ones.

      1. It is more than my head. We have a 5 cord pile of wood with my name on it. Every year the unused gets restacked so it will be used first, back moved to front, then I have to custom split the wood we bought so Mary Beth can manage the pieces and have small hot fires. Keeps me out of trouble.

        1. And I thought I was doing something when I had one cord delivered. That rotation’s important, though — I hope it’s done now, so you can go on to more pleasant things. The good news is that you’re back to being able to do it, even if it goes a little more slowly and is a little more tiring. I hope you’re pacing yourself.

          1. I don’t overdo it and take breaks periodically but I am able to accomplish more with the passing weeks. I am not where i was before “the incident” :) but am doing pretty well. Back to my prior work schedule and this week, while for flower pursuit, is also for getting yard jobs done too.
            It’s just a wee bit chillier here than Texas once winter rolls in, so those 5 are necessary. It’s a lot of work now, but come December the effort is much appreciated.

            1. OK! We’ll tuck “wee bit chillier” into the list of best understatements of the year. I’m really glad you’re doing better.

            2. A wee bit fits because we’re colder than you are, but there’s cold and then there is really cold. :)

              Thank you, Linda. I just hiked a favorite place looking for other Yellow Lady’s Slippers beside the one in my yard. Only one, but the hike was a little challenging with several uphills. Not that big a deal in the past. Good aerobics for the heart. I am able to do most if not all that I used to albeit much slower.

            3. It’s odd that I had to approve your comment a few minutes ago. This is the second or third time it’s happened. Even if you’re using a different device, like a phone, after I’ve approved it the first time it ought to stick. Anyway –i f you ever comment and it doesn’t show up right away, it may be that it’s awaiting approval and I’m out and about somewhere.

              As long as I find one “something” every time I go out, I’m happy. I’ve never yet failed in that regard. Granted, I may not find what I was looking for, but that’s ok. I am glad you found your yellow lady’s slipper, though. It’s always nice to seek and find.

              Here’s a question for you. I need something more convenient and roomier to carry lenses, a water bottle, and such. I’ve made do with just a small case for a couple of lenses, but as I’m spending more time on trails, and roaming farther away from the car, it just won’t do. I’ve been looking at some sling bags. Do you have any experience with them? I really don’t want to go all the way to a full-fledged backpack at this point, but something like this looks like it might do. I don’t carry a tripod. Since the bag takes a Canon 70-200mm (7.83″), my 70-300mm (6.whatever inches) ought to fit just fine.

              I’m going to have to find a convenient way to carry more water, too. A couple of hours is no big deal, but four or five hours, even in shade, can be wearing.

            4. I have not used a sling bag although I have occasionally carried my backpack as one. I will show you what I am using now. I use the side pocket to carry a rolled up carpet sample for kneeling in wet stuff, but a water bottle would fit.

              Every time I share a link, as I just did, I get a message below the header of my comment that it needs to be approved. And that last one was a double whammy.

              I don’t drink a lot of water so only carry some if I will be out a long time as you mention. Problem for a guy my age is drinking a lot and you know what that leads to. But, if I really wanted to carry some this might be a handy option. Protects from falling branches too.

              It’s rare that I come home without something to share. Happened yesterday though until I went in the backyard and photographed Junior.

            5. OK-doke. I’d set things to require moderation if a comment contained two or more links. I just changed it to three. That ought to take care of it, since I’ve never had anyone drop three links. It wasn’t you, it was me.

              I think I’ll pass on that tricked-out hard hat, although it’s not the weirdest thing I’ve seen on the trails. I tucked the link to the backpack in my files for future reference. Since I don’t carry a tripod, kneeling pad, snacks, or an ipad, I think it might be a little overkill: at least, for now. In the future? Who knows. Appreciate the recommendation.

              In our heat and humidity, I worry about dehydration. In fact, I carry water to work in gallon jugs. You can tell the ones who’ve worked on the docks for a while. They’re the ones with the water and no-sugar sports drinks lined up close at hand. The goal is to need to make a restroom stop at the end of the day!

  6. Your post is just the most lovely way to return to blogging (while currently camping in a tent after spending a morning at the Katy Prairie Preserve). A flax flower in Texas? My interest is piqued!!

    Never mind the poetic references here. (Note to self: listen to the Debussy piece.) As a 7-yr vegan, flaxseed is an integral part of my family’s diet. In reading, I discover that yellow flax is less dense in Omega-3 than brown flax. Is the other grown here? I have no idea ..

    ‘Wherever flaxseed becomes a regular food item among the people, there will be better health.’ ~ Mahatma Ghandi

    1. None of our native Texas flaxes, like these, are used for food or fiber. The plant most usually used is the Mediterranean/European native Linum usitatissimum. (There may be others I don’t know about.) L.usitatissimum is grown in Texas, but the USDA map shows it in only a dozen counties. I did find in this article the interesting detail that it’s a good crop to go into rotation with cotton or maize, which probably explains why it’s shown in Jackson, Wharton, and Karnes counties. I know there’s maize there, and some cotton, too.

      I have a friend who always adds flaxseed to her bread, but I’m happy just to enjoy the flowers. I’m glad you’ve got some good weather for the weekend. Have fun!

      1. Just the best weather for late May; I put the tent up out back midday Friday, and haven’t gone indoors yet.

        I’ll have to check into the edible varieties of flax .. thanks for the link. The golden one is certainly a show-stopper!

    2. When I talked to my aunt this afternoon, I asked her if she still was putting flaxseed in her bread. She laughed and said, “Honey, I put it in everything I can.” So, we have at least one member of the family who’s a fan. Oh, and did I mention she’s 93? Maybe I need to give this a second look!

      1. Breads, cookies, pancakes, muffins, basically any baked good can have ground flaxseed added in (I sub a portion of the flour). We keep the seeds whole in the pantry until needed, and ground only what’s required to keep the flour from going rancid. It’s a great little seed, a cheap and fantastic health food. Your aunt knows!

    1. The flax that provides food and fiber is taller and a lovely blue. There are some garden flaxes that are deep blue, too. A couple of our natives are blue, but they’re found in limited areas. These are so lovely — about an inch across, not so tall, and willing to come back and bloom even after being assaulted by the accursed county mowers. Here’s an open flower.

    1. It’s one of my favorite flowers. When it combines with Indian paintbrush, the sight is fully as lovely as paintbrush and bluebonnets together. Of course, I’m a great fan of mixed bouquets generally, so I’m always glad to find a new combination.

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