Clitoria ternatea

Common name: Butterfly pea

Other common names: Asian pigeonwings, Blue butterfly pea, Blue pea, Bluebell vine, Kordofan pea

Names in non-English languages: Philippines Spanish Thailand

Description

Butterfly Pea is a perennial and leguminous flowering vine widely distributed across the tropics and subtropics, which has made it difficult for botanists to trace its origins, though tropical Asia is suggested as the most likely region from which it originates.

It is fast-growing and produces a large taproot below ground, above which grow finely hairy, slender, green herbaceous stems 3 to 5 m (10 to 15 ft) long. These twist and climbing their way up on any structure or nearby object they make contact with, entwining and sometimes completely covering them.

The leaves are feathery, made up of small green oval leaflets 2 to 5 cm (0.8 to 2 in) long, arranged in two, three or four pairs along the length and with an extra leaflet at the tip.

The flowers are pea-like in shape, resembling flowers of other legumes, purple-blue in colour, stained white at the centre or less commonly pure white. They are borne singly or in pairs, spaced far apart along the vine and bloom on and off throughout the year. Slender seedpods follow, 6 to 11 cm (2.3 to 4.3 in) long, green when young, becoming brown and dry with up to ten blackish seed inside.

Use

It can be trained to climb up and cascade over walls, fences, arbours and trellises to quickly screen or shade an area, its feathery foliage and showy pea-like flowers an added bonus. It is also used for erosion control and in agriculture as green manure or orchard ground-cover, on account of its deep taproot, quick growth and nitrogen-fixing abilities.

The young seedpods and flowers are edible, the seedpods usually cooked as a vegetable and the flowers used as a decorative garnish or to add colour and interest to salads.

The herbaceous parts are highly palatable to livestock and it can be sown in pastures as forage, fresh-cut feed or grown with tall grasses for rotational hay or silage production. The fresh-cut parts, including the leaves, flowers and soft stems are reported to have a crude protein content of about 19% of their dry weight.

The blue flowers yield a dye containing ternatin, a pigment similar to litmus, which is widely used as an indicator of acidity and alkalinity. Aqueous extracts of the flower are traditionally used as a food colouring, to colour hair and to dye fabric or fibre. A dye can be made by drying the flowers, crushing them to a powder and then mixing the powder with ten parts water. Altering the pH of the dye liquor gives colours in the red or blue spectrum and adding mordants such as ferrous sulphate, copper sulphate or lemon help make the dye colour-fast.

The flowers are rich in Bioflavinoid, a natural compound found in modern-day hair products which reportedly stimulates hair growth and causes the hair to grow thick and lustrous.

General interest

The first part of the botanical name, Clitoria, comes from the flower's resemblance to the female genitalia.

Climate

Grows naturally in sub-humid to moderately humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 15 to 25 °C, annual highs of 26 to 35 °C annual rainfall of 600 to 4000 mm and a dry season of 6 months or less. Under dry season conditions, it enters a stage of dormancy where growth slows and the foliage dies down, recovering again when the rains return.

Growing

New plants are usually raised from seed but can also be started from cuttings. Performs best on free-draining clay, loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5 to 8.5 and on sites with full to partial sun exposure. It has good tolerance to drought and limestone soils.

Problem features

It re-seed naturally, is a declared noxious weed and invasive species in Australia and is assessed as a high weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).

The mature seed are a strong purgative and should not be ingested.

Where it will grow


References

Books

  • Adams, C. D. 1972, Flowering plants of Jamaica, University of the West Indies, Mona, Greater Kingston

  • Allen, O. N. & Allen, E. K. 1981, The Leguminosae : a source book of characteristics, uses, and nodulation, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin

  • Chami J. & Invernizzi, L. 2002, Thai spa book : the natural Asian way to health and beauty, Periplus Editions, Hong Kong

  • Chaplin, L. T. & Brandies M. M. 1998, The Florida Gardener’s Book of Lists, Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas

  • Duke, J. A. 1981, Handbook of legumes of world economic importance, Plenum Press, New York

  • Fawcett, W. 1891, Economic plants, An index to economic products of the vegetable kingdom in Jamaica, Jamaica Government Printing Establishment, Kingston

  • Gohl, B. 1981, Tropical feeds : feed information summaries and nutritive values (Revised edition), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome

  • Griffiths, M. & Burras, J. K. 1994, Manual of climbers and wall plants, Royal Horticultural Society (Great Britain), Timber Press, Portland, Oregon

  • Jex-Blake, A. J. 1957, Gardening in East Africa : a practical handbook, 4th ed., Royal Kenya Horticultural Society, Longmans, Green and Company, London

  • Martin, F. W & Ruberté, R. M. 1975, Edible leaves of the tropics, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

  • Menninger, E. A. 1970, Flowering vines of the world : an encyclopedia of climbing plants, Hearthside Press, New York

  • Oakman, H. 1995, Harry Oakman's what flowers when : the complete guide to flowering times in tropical and subtropical gardens, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland

  • Parrotta, J. A. 2001, Healing plants of peninsular India, CABI Publishing, Wallingford, Oxfordshire

  • Randall, R. P. 2002, A global compendium of weeds, R.G. and F.J. Richardson Press, Melbourne

  • Randall, R. P. 2007, The introduced flora of Australia and its weed status, Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management, Glen Osmond, South Australia

  • Rauch, F. D. & Weissich, P. R. 2000, Plants for tropical landscapes : a gardener's guide, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu

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