What is now called The Fabaceae, was long known as Leguminosae and commonly these are known as the legume, pea, or bean family.
This is a large and economically important family in the world. It includes trees, shrubs, and perennial or annual herbaceous plants, which are easily recognized by their fruit (legume) and/or their compound, stipulate leaves.
In case there are any medical uses stated with the plants mentioned below, please take sensible advise from a qualified herbalist.
If you would like to learn a bit more about the classification of this large family I can recommend Britannica.com webpage
The background colour of the text indicate green for positive news and pink for negative news… In bold for quick reading and any other colour then green and pink used is to make it more pretty! Links are provided on medical or other difficult words.
Along with the cereals, some fruits and tropical roots, a number of Leguminosae have been a staple human food for millennia and their use is closely related to human evolution.
The family includes a number of important agricultural and food plants, including Glycine max (soybean), Phaseolus (beans), Pisum sativum (pea), Cicer arietinum (chickpeas), Medicago sativa (alfalfa), Arachis hypogaea (peanut), Ceratonia siliqua (carob), and Glycyrrhiza glabra (liquorice).
A number of species are also weedy pests in different parts of the world, including: Cytisus scoparius (broom), Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust), Ulex europaeus (gorse), Pueraria montana (kudzu), and a number of Lupinus species.
The Fabaceae is divided into 3 Subfamilies but on the British Isles the native genera are all in Subfamily 1 or the Faboideae, which has 12 tribes and 35 genera. These are mostly herbs with a few woody shrubs.
This Subfamily is distinctive in its flowers and useful for its ability to fix nitrogen through the nodules attached to the roots. Most legumes are also good food plants for insects and this is a good reason for leaving them to grow in your garden or in your lawn or plant them as many are attractive!
An account now follows of the most important native genera and species in the various tribes.
In tribe 5 or Hedysareae: Onobrychis viciifolia or Sainfoin.
is also known as O. sativa or common sainfoin has been an important forage legume in temperate regions until the 1950s. During the Green Revolution it was replaced by high yielding alfalfa and clover species.
Due to its anthelmintic properties the common sainfoin is a natural alternative to drugs to control nematode parasitism in the guts of small ruminants. This is the main reason why O. viciifolia came back to the scientific agenda during the last years. Especially in goat and sheep production systems feeding of O. viciifolia is a promising alternative or complement to synthetic drugs.
Besides these anthelmintic properties diets containing common sainfoin can lead to increasing daily weight gains of small ruminants. Also milk quantity and quality of these animals are not negatively affected by O. viciifolia intake. Furthermore, various studies showed that the voluntary intake of sainfoin was comparable or even higher than the intake of alfalfa or clover species.
Two different agricultural types of O. viciifolia are known. Compared to other forage legumes both types are weak in competition and their regrowth after mowing is considered to be low. Also the yields of common sainfoin are significantly lower than those of alfalfa and clover.
In terms of symbiotic nitrogen fixation from the atmosphere, common sainfoin is not as specific as other legumes. A relatively broad range of rhizobia genera is able to colonize the roots of O. viciifolia.
The common sainfoin is an open pollinating plant, mainly pollinated by nectar feeding insects. Therefore, O. viciifolia is a promising crop to enhance biodiversity within agro-ecosystems. The leaves of common sainfoin contain high levels of condensed tannins. This content can be more than five times higher than in clover species or alfalfa.
The chalk grassland form of O. viciifolia may be native, but the limits of its native distribution have been obscured by aliens. Agricultural variants were introduced in the 17th century and widely cultivated for fodder until the 19th century. The species is increasing as a constituent of wild-flower mixtures and as a contaminant of grass-seed.
In tribe 6 or Loteae are Anthyllis sp. & 5 subspecies. Also the genus Lotus.
Anthyllis vulneraria (Kidney Vetch or Ladies’ Fingers) is a very pretty plant occasionally found on sea cliffs on dry calcareous soils. It has some medicinal uses according to Plants for a Future and the Medicinal Flora.
The roots, leaves and flowers are antitussive, astringent, laxative and vulnerary. This plant is an ancient remedy for skin eruptions, slow-healing wounds, minor wounds, cuts and bruises, it is applied externally.
Internally, it is used as a treatment for constipation and as a spring tonic. The plant can be used fresh in the growing season, or harvested when in flower and dried for later use.
In Switzerland, it is taken as a tonic beverage usually in a mixture with Wild Strawberry leaves and Blackthorn flowers.
Lotus spp. (or Bird’s foot trefoils) and its members are adapted to a wide range of habitats, from coastal environments to high altitudes.
Lotus species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species. Several species are culvivated for forage, including L. corniculatus, L. glaber, and L. pedunculatus. They can produce toxic cyanogenic glycosides which can be potentially toxic to livestock, but also produce tannins, which are a beneficial anti-bloating compound.
The five native species are all attractive plants. L. corniculatus or Common bird’s foot trefoil has also got the funny name as ‘Eggs and Bacon’. From the Med. Flora: The flowers are said to be calming, soporific and antispasmodic and are recommended in anxiety, depression and insomnia taken as an infusion.
In tribe 7 or Coronilleae there is Ornithopus perpusillus (Bird’s foot) and Hippocrepis comosa (Horseshoe Vetch). Hippocrepis comosa is the exclusive food plant of the caterpillars of chalkhill blue (Polyommatus coridon) and Adonis blue (Polyommatus bellargus) butterflies. Populations that support such butterflies occur on longstanding, ungrazed meadows, quarries, edges of paths and wasteland. Outside of southern England and the Midlands (e.g. the Gower and Yorkshire populations) the climate is unsuitable for the butterflies.
In tribe 8 or the Fabeae we find the large genus Vicia with 11 native species as well as the genus Lathyrus (Peas) with possibly 7 native species.
Vicia or Vetch
Trying to grow some from seed this year to beautify my allotment!
Forage for Pollinators: Produces a major amount of Pollen for bees which are declining, such as the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) and ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus) and the endangered mining bee (Andrena lathyri) which uses only this pollen for its brood, so is dependent on it.
Nectar is produced for Honeybees (though not in all years or localities), and like Broad beans, has extra-floral nectaries which likewise flow about two weeks before flowering.
All Bumblebees seem able to feed on its nectar either the flower or extra-floral nectaries.
Flowering time: May, June, July, August.
Growing information: NATIVE PERENNIAL WILDFLOWER growing (scrambling) to 1.8 m (6ft). Prefers reasonably fertile, damp soils but is intolerant of permanently damp sites. These and all vetches have particularly suffered from modern, intensive agricultural practices.
This plant with pretty purple flower spikes, has limited capacity for vegetative spread and is mainly reliant on its large seed for regeneration. This coupled with its need of surrounding vegetation for support means it is mainly a hedgerow plant and rarely found in pasture of mown grassland. It can, however, become established in meadow, particularly those cut later in the season.
Also found edible and medicinal uses through the Plants for a Future website:
– Seed – cooked. They are boiled or roasted.
– Leaves and young stems – cooked.
– Used as a potherb.
– The leaves are a tea substitute.
– The cooked plant is used as a galactogogue (to increase lactation.)
– It can fix nitrogen and be used as a green manure.
Some uses for Vicia sativa
Can be used as a fodder
Horses thrive very well on common vetch, even better than on clover and rye grass; the same applies to fattening cattle, which feed faster on vetch than on most grasses or other edible plants.
Danger often arises from livestock eating too much vetch, especially when podded; colics and other stomach disorders are apt to be produced by the excessive amounts devoured.
Cereal grains can be sown with vetch so it can use their stronger stems for support, attaching via tendrils. When grown with oats or other grasses, the vetch can grow upright; otherwise its weak stems may sprawl along the ground. Several cultivars are available for agricultural use, and as for some other legume crops, rhizobia can be added to the seed.
Common vetch has long been part of the human diet, as attested by carbonised remains found at early Neolithic sites in Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia. It has also been reported from Predynastic sites of ancient Egypt, and several Bronze Age sites in Turkmenia and Slovakia. However, definite evidence for later vetch cultivation is available only for Roman times.
Some uses for Vicia hirsuta:
Hairy tare is commonly used in cover crops and green manures on farms in North America. Typically, common vetch or hairy vetch provides the leguminous component of the crop, usually mingled with a grassy component as a nurse crop and an addition of more cellulose to the resultant organic matter (for example, rye or winter wheat).
The genus Lathyrus possibly has 7 native species. The ornamental Sweet Pea and Everlasting Pea are in this genus and our natives look all like miniature versions of these. Examples are Lathyrus palustris or Marsh Pea and L nissolia or Grass Vetchling.
Known edible uses from Plants for a Future:
- The immature seeds are eaten raw or cooked like peas.
- Mature seeds are cooked or sprouted and used in salads
- Young seedpods – raw or cooked when less than 25mm long
- The roasted seed is a coffee substitute
The seed contains a toxic amino-acid which, in large quantities, can cause a very serious disease of the nervous system known as ‘lathyrism’. The seed is said to be perfectly safe and very nutritious in small quantities, but should not comprise more than 30% of the diet.
The seeds are used as a resolvent in Spain (= an agent capable of dispersing or absorbing inflammatory products.)
Lathyrus pratensis or meadow vetchling, yellow pea, meadow pea and meadow pea-vine, is a perennial legume that grows to 1.2 m. in height.
The hermaphrodite flowers are pollinated by bees. As a perennial, this plant reproduces itself over many years, spreading out from the point it was introduced, especially in damp grassy areas. This plant has been propagated in the past as animal fodder.
Lathyrus pratensis is also a host plant for ovipositioning of the wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapis).
In tribe 10 or Trifolieae we find: Ononis (Restharrows), Melilotus (Melilots), Medicago (Medicks) and Trifolium (Clovers).
The Restharrows are an unusual small shrubby plant with pink flowers mostly found on rough grasslands and waysides on calcareous soils. I’ve also spotted it on the Northumberland coast.
In J. Barker’s Medicinal Flora the Spiny Restharrow or Ononis spinosa is highly rated as a superb diuretic. It may be taken for generalised oedema; if of cardiac origin, it should be noted that this remedy tends to be hypotensive, especially if taken with other plants (which it should be). Its diuretic and mildly antiseptic properties mix well with other remedies for inflammations of kidney and bladder, and also as gargle for sore throats.
Restharrow contributes well to prescriptions for gout and ‘rheumatism’ but its anthilithic activity is disputed and may well be wishful thinking. The diuretic and anti-inflammatory activity is enhanced by the presence of volatile oil; therefore a long hot infusion is the best preparation while a decoction, even of the root, is to be avoided.
The Melilots have all got medicinal uses and the yellow flowered variety or Melilotus officinalis is in particular very attractive, with a lovely scent and bees find these very attractive.
According to Med. Flora this is a plant of most ancient and very various usages. It was especially recommended as a poultice for swellings and bruises and also, internally, to remove some of the effects of drunkenness!
Action: Mild sedative and antispasmodic. Anti-coagulant. Phlebotonic.
Diuretic and urinary antiseptic. Antimicrobial. Emollient & mildly astringent.
Uses: Insomnia, nervous tension and intestinal colic. Painful micturition.
Varicose veins. Thrombophlebitis
as a prophylactic for those already afflicted by coronary or cerebral thrombosis. Conjunctivitis, blepharitis.
for styes (as compress).
Other Uses: (Wikipedia)
The seeds are eaten by game birds, including grouse.
Melilot or Sweet clover which is one other name, can be used as pasture or livestock feed. It is most palatable in spring and early summer, but livestock may need time to adjust to the bitter taste of coumarin in the plant.
Prior to World War II before the common use of commercial agricultural fertilizers, the plant was commonly used as a cover crop to increase nitrogen content and improve subsoil water capacity in poor soils.
It is the most drought-tolerant of the commercially available legumes. Sweet clover is a major source of nectar for domestic honey bees as hives near sweet clover can yield up to 200 pounds of honey in a year.
In the chemical industry, dicoumarol is extracted from the plant to produce rodenticides.
Melilotus albus or White melilot or Honey clover has similar properties to the yellow species. Its characteristic sweet odor, intensified by drying, is derived from coumarin. Like white sweetclover, yellow sweetclover (Melilotus officinalis) is erect, tall, and branching, but is distinguished by yellow rather than white flowers. Though they share most botanical characteristics, Melilot is typically found in drier habitats and has a tendency to flower about 2–4 weeks earlier than white melilot.
Medicago or Medicks
There are 6 species of Medicago or Medicks mentioned in Stace with 5 being native. There are about 20 other Mediterranean spp which have been found as aliens in wool and other sources, but all less commonly than the 6 treated in the Flora.
Black medick is one of the flowers used to make honey. It is frequently found in natural pastures, and may be planted in order to create artificial meadows, especially on dry land. The presence of black medick in large concentrations as a lawn weed may indicate that the soil is poor in nitrogen. However, because black medick and other clovers fix nitrogen in the soil, this deficiency can improve over time due to the presence of these plants.
Black medick is sometimes used as a fodder plant. Its hardiness and ability to grow in poor soils, as well as its tendency to fix nitrogen in the soil, make black medick a good choice for pasturage, although its fodder value is limited. It is grazed by sheep but is not very palatable to cattle.
M. sativa and ssp. falcata or Sickle Medick, M. sativa Nothossp. varia or Sand Lucerne and M. sativa ssp. sativa or Lucerne (also called Alfalfa) which was introduced as a crop and now occasionally naturalized. M. minima or Bur Medick, M. polymorpha or Toothed Medick with edible uses according to Plants for a Future and M. arabica or Spotted Medick.
Many of the small flowered are native to the Mediterranean basin but are found throughout the world. They form a symbiotic relationship with the bacterium Sinorhizobium medicae, which is capable of nitrogen fixation.
Trifolium or Clover
There are well over 200 species of Trifolium in the world and 100 in Europe (from Med. Flora) and (in Stace) about 20 true natives in the B.I. Julian Barker gives an interesting account of the uses of Clover and how the medicinal practises travelled from America back to Britain.
Clovers are an important agricultural and fodder crop in spite of cyanogenic glycocides which some species contain, (notably White clover or Trifolium repens) along with other compounds which may subject ruminants to a number of problems.
This is probably the best known of all the clovers and also the most common one in all grassy areas as well as in cultivation.
- The flowers are mostly visited by bumblebees and often by honey bees.
- White clover has been described as the most important forage legume of the temperate zones.
- White clover is commonly grown in mixtures with forage grasses, e.g. perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne). Such mixtures can not only optimize livestock production, but can also reduce the bloat risk to livestock that can be associated with excessive white clover in pastures. Companion planting, green manure, and cover crops.
- White clover grows well as a companion plant among lawns, grain crops, pasture grasses, and vegetable rows.
- It is often added to lawn seed mixes, as it is able to grow and provide green cover in poorer soils where turfgrasses do not perform well.
- White clover can tolerate close mowing and grazing, and it can grow on many different types and pHs of soil (although it prefers clay soils).
- As a leguminous and hardy plant, it is considered to be a beneficial component of natural or organic pasture management and lawn care due to its ability to fix nitrogen and out-compete weeds.
- Natural nitrogen fixing reduces leaching from the soil and by maintaining soil health can reduce the incidence of some lawn diseases that are enhanced by the availability of synthetic fertilizer.
- For the above reasons, it is often used as a green manure and cover crop.
- It is an excellent forage crop for livestock
- The leaves and flowers are a valuable survival food: they are high in proteins, and are widespread and abundant. The fresh plants have been used for centuries as additives to salads and other meals consisting of leafy vegetables.
- They are not easy for humans to digest raw, however, but this is easily fixed by boiling the harvested plants for 5–10 minutes.
- Dried white clover flowers may also be smoked as an herbal alternative to tobacco.
In India, T. repens is considered a folk medicine against intestinal helminthic worms, and an experimental in-vivo study validated that the aerial shoots of T. repens bear significant anticestodal properties.
From Med. Flora: The contemporary usage is not more than 200 years old and is more or less confined to the Anglo-American tradition. The Thompsonian or Physiomedical systems of herbal medicine were brought in Britain in the first half of the 19th century by a Dr Coffin. He revived interest in indigenous herbal remedies and introduced a number of American ones. His writings and public lectures were a great success especially in the industrial cities of the north which saw a rebirth of both the trade in herbal remedies and in their use by professional herbalists. It was the seedbed for the formation of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists which traces its inception to 1864.
This is probably the second best known clover in the British Isles.
- Fodder, green manure. Several cultivar groups have been selected for agricultural use, mostly derived from T. pratense var. sativum.
- Due to its beauty, it is used as an ornamental plant.
- Red clover’s flowers and leaves are edible, and can be added as garnishes to any dish. They can be ground into a flour.
- The flowers often are used to make jelly and tisanes, and are used in essiac recipes.
- Their essential oil may be extracted and its unique scent used in aromatherapy.
Action: dermatological agent; mild antispasmodic; expectorant.
Uses: Chronic skin disease, especially eczema.
- Red Clover is used in traditional medicine of India as deobstruent, antispasmodic, expectorant, sedative, anti-inflammatory and antidermatosis agent.
- In alternative medicine, red clover is promoted as a treatment for a variety of human maladies, including symptoms of menopause, coughs, disorders of the lymphatic system and a variety of cancers.
- Red clover contains coumestrol, a phytoestrogen.Due to its activity on oestrogen receptors, red clover is contraindicated in people with a history of breast cancer, endometriosis, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, uterine fibroids or other oestrogen-sensitive conditions,although some authors have suggested the high isoflavone content counteracts this, and even provides benefits in these conditions.
It is metabolised by CYP3A4 and therefore caution should be used when taking it with other drugs using this metabolic pathway.
and finally in tribe 12 or Genisteae we find the woody plants Cytisus (Brooms), Genista (Greenweeds) and Ulex (Gorses).
Cytisus or Broom
The Broom’s botanical name has changed on a number of occasions but is now called Cytisus scoparius. Most of its common and historical names refer to the use of the stems as brooms. From various sources was found that eating the plant confers a degree of protection and an antidote to snakebites.
- Broom contains scoparin, which is a diuretic.
- The plant also is used as a cathartic and as a cardiac stimulant which is credited to the presence of sparteine.
- A decoction or infusion of broom can be used to treat dropsy due to its diuretic action.
- An ointment can be made from the flowers to treat gout.
- Oxysparteine, produced from the action of acid on the sparteine, is useful as a cardiac stimulant and has the advantage over digoxin that it does not accumulate in the body.
The whole plant is very attractive both with or without flowers. Various cultivars are available at good nurseries, for example see here
In Welsh mythology, Blodeuwedd is the name of a woman made from the flowers of broom, meadowsweet and the oak by Math fab Mathonwy and Gwydion to be the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Her story is part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, the tale of Math son of Mathonwy.
Broom was considered a sign of plenty when it bore many flowers.
However a traditional rhyme from Sussex warns: “Sweep the house with blossomed broom in May/sweep the head of the household away.”
Broom was also used in a decorated bundle of broom at weddings in place of rosemary when that was scarce, and its strong smell was said to be able to tame wild horses and dogs.
In Italy, the shrub was burnt to stop witches.
The name of the House of Plantagenet, rulers of England in the Middle Ages, may have been derived from common broom, which was then known as planta genista in Latin.The plant was used as a heraldic badge by Geoffrey V of Anjou and five other Plantagenet kings of England as a royal emblem.The “broomscod”, or seed-pod, was the personal emblem of Charles VI of France.
Genista tinctoria or Dyer’s Greenweed
Properties and uses:
The plant, as its Latin and common names suggest, has been used from ancient times for producing a yellow dye, which combined with woad also provides a green colour.
The plant has been used in popular medicine and herbalism for various complaints, including skin diseases, even in modern times.
It was mentioned by both Gerard and Parkinson. It has some affinities with Broom and with which it shares the possession of quinolizidine alkaloids, a flavone and a yellow glycoside. It was well known as a dye and apparently mixes well with Woad to produce an excellent green. Similar Actions and Uses to Broom but much weaker.
Another pretty plant is Genista pilosa or hairy greenweed, silkyleaf broom, silkyleaf woadwaxen and creeping broom, to give five of its common used names!
Finally, probably the most common Legume in many parts of the British Isles which is the Gorse.
Ulex or Gorse
Ulex europaeus or common gorse, furze or whin, must be one of our longest flowering native plants. It is rarely out of flower here locally where it is abundant all along the Sutton Road of the Barr Beacon outside Walsall!
- A welcome sight in autumn to spring. The flowers bear a lovely coconut scent.
- This is a plant which, in the case of need, will be considered useful but which will otherwise be neglected. If burnt, the alkaline ash will be of benefit as a fertiliser and has also been made into soap.
- The young shoots are edible and saved lives in the Irish Famine. So are the seeds though the latter has been said to yield a cardioactive alkaloid.
- Gorse flowers are one of ‘The Four Helpers’ of Dr Edward Bach and are indicated for Despair.
Like many species of gorse, it is often a fire-climax plant, which readily catches fire but re-grows from the roots after the fire; the seeds are also adapted to germinate after slight scorching by fire. It has a tap root, lateral and adventious roots. An extremely tough and hardy plant, it survives temperatures down to −20 °C. It can live for about thirty years.
- This plant is used for hedging, boundary definition and groundcover in suitably sunny, open locations.
- Ornamental varieties or Cultivars include ‘Strictus’ (Irish gorse), a dwarf form, and the double-flowered, non-fruiting ‘Flore Pleno’, which has gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit.
- Bruised gorse was used in some areas for feeding to horses and other livestock.
- Lectin extracted from seeds of this species binds to, is remarkably specific for, and is the standard method for identification of H-substance (absent in the hh antigen system) on human red blood cells. The vast majority of humans express H-substance, which is the basis for the ABO blood group system, but a few rare individuals (“Bombay phenotype“) do not—and a chemical isolated from Ulex europaeus is used to identify these individuals. This lectin is also used as a marker for human vascular endothelial cells and as a tool for their isolation for in-vitro culture.
- It fixes nitrogen into the soil.
Ulex minor (Dwarf gorse) Due to its relatively soft spines, Dwarf furze is readily grazed by livestock and wild herbivores.
The distributions of Dwarf furze and its close relative Western gorse (Ulex gallii) hardly overlap, even in similar habitats.
and finally, Ulex galii (Western gorse).
This favours acidic heathy soils and is frequently found in exposed maritime and montane environments. It is more common in the west of its distribution; in eastern England it is replaced in similar habitats by the closely related Dwarf furze (Ulex minor), with very little overlap in the distribution of the two species. Like many species of gorse, it can grow as a fire-climax plant, which readily catches fire but re-grows from the roots after the fire; the seeds are also adapted to germinate after slight scorching by fire.