butterfly_pea_12-16-13.jpg

Photo of butterfly pea plant with flowers
James H. Miller & Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society, Bugwood.org
Family

Fabaceae (beans)

Description

A low, shrublike perennial with twisting stems that are erect, reclining, or vining, with soft, short hairs. Flowers solitary or few on very short peduncles, to 2 inches long, beautiful pale blue and lilac with darker veining, arising from leaf axils. The overall floral structure is that of typical pea flowers, though the standard (the large upper petal) is comparatively much larger than usual. One scientist has suggested that late in the season the plant produces small, budlike, insignificant flowers, which also produce seed. Blooms May–September. Leaves alternate, compound, with 3 leaflets, the center leaflet on a longer stem than the two lateral ones. Fruit a bean pod about 2 inches long.

Size

Stem length: to 3 feet.

Habitat and conservation

Occurs in acid soils in open upland or lowland woods, borders of glades, ravines, and stream openings.

image of Butterfly Pea Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Southern Missouri.

Human connections

Early botanists named this plant's genus for its resemblance to the human female genitalia. The genus occurs worldwide in temperate and tropical areas, and the different species often have common names that mean about the same thing, in the various local languages.

Ecosystem connections

Insects, including leaf miners and some butterfly and moth larvae, eat the leaves. Although it is called "butterfly pea," bees, not butterflies, seem to be the primary pollinators. The common name apparently came from the flower's resemblance to a butterfly's spread wings.