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Lathyrus sativus is a crop that is considered to be both a saviour and a destroyer. In times of famine, it is often the only alternative to starvation. It can withstand extreme environments, from drought to flooding.

Photo of Herbarium specimen of Lathyrus sativus

[KSP]

Kew Species Profiles

General Description

Lathyrus sativus is a crop that is considered to be both a saviour and a destroyer. In times of famine, it is often the only alternative to starvation. It can withstand extreme environments, from drought to flooding.

The crop is harmless to humans in small quantities, but eating it as a major part of the diet over a three month period can cause permanent paralysis below the knees in adults and brain damage in children, a disorder known as lathyrism. The culprit is a potent neurotoxin called ODAP (β-N-Oxalyl-L-α,β-diaminopropionic acid) which is responsible for the drought and waterlogging tolerance of grass pea but, if taken in large enough quantities, brings on the neurological disorder.

Grass pea is easy to cultivate, and is tasty and high in nutritious protein, making it a popular crop in south west Asia and the eastern Horn of Africa where it is also grown to feed livestock. As in many members of the legume family (Leguminosae), grasspea is able to fix nitrogen from the air through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria housed in root nodules, which means that growing it keeps the soil healthy and well fertilised.

Species Profile
Geography and distribution

The origins of Lathyrus sativus are unclear. Archaeological evidence suggests that domestication of grass pea probably occurred in the Balkan region around 6,000 BC, and further remains have been found in India dating to 2,000-1,500 BC. Today, grass pea is widely cultivated in Asia, (especially in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and the Middle East), southern Europe and North Africa and to a lesser degree America, Australia and South Africa.

The crop can be grown on a wide range of soil types, including nutrient poor soils and heavy clays and can tolerate waterlogging and moderate salinity. 

Description

Overview: Lathyrus sativus is a much-branched annual herb up to 170 cm tall with a well developed taproot. 

Leaves: The stem is slender, quadrangular and winged with leaves arranged alternately along it. Each leaf is composed of 1-4 leaflets and ends in a simple or branched tendril. Stipules (appendages at the base of the leaf) are narrowly triangular, prominent and leaf-like. The petiole (the part which connects the leaf to the stem) is usually winged and is up to 3.5 cm long. 

Flowers: Blue, reddish-purple, red, pink or white and papilionaceous, typical of species belonging to the Leguminosae subfamily Papilionoideae, and resemble, for example, the common garden pea ( Pisum sativum ) flower. Each flower has 10 stamens, 9 of which are fused into a partial tube, with the tenth stamen free. The ovary is positioned above the sepals, petals and stamens.  The style is abruptly upturned and the stigma is spoon-shaped. 

Fruit: An oblong, laterally flattened pod up to 5.5 x 2 cm and contains up to 7 seeds. The seeds are wedge-shaped, 4-7 mm in diameter and can be white, pale green, grey or brown, and sometimes have a marbled pattern.  

Uses

Grass pea is cultivated mainly for its edible seeds which are typically consumed in the form of sauces and soups: 

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, the pulse can be eaten after boiling or is ground and made into unleavened bread, known as 'kitta' which is consumed mainly during times of famine.In India, grass pea seeds are most commonly eaten as a 'dahl', they can also be made into paste balls, put in curry or boiled and eaten as a pulse.Flour, made by grinding the seeds is used to make 'roti' which is a staple food for landless labourers in Bangladesh.In India it is not an unusual practice to use grass pea to adulterate more expensive pulses such as chickpea or pigeon pea.

Care should be taken since consumption of grass pea beyond a certain threshold can cause paralysis of the lower limbs in people and animals, a disorder known as lathyrism.

The seeds are also frequently used as an ingredient in animal feed. In many Asian countries, the immature pods of the plant are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. It is also common to dry and store the young vegetative parts of grass pea so that they can be eaten outside of the growing season.

The high protein content and reliable yield of grass pea makes the crop excellent fodder for cattle and can be eaten green or as hay. Like many other legumes, grass pea is able to fix nitrogen from the air which means that the crop is valued as green manure, for example in Australia and Canada.

Grass pea also has medicinal uses, for example, the oil from the seeds is a powerful cathartic (stimulating bowel evacuation).

Crop wild relatives of grass pea

The wild relatives of grass pea are an important source of genetic diversity for the cultivation of low toxin varieties. Grass pea is one of the 29 priority crops that are the focus of the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project led by Kew's Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. By collecting the wild relatives of crops such as grass pea and making their seeds available to breeders, useful traits such as lower toxicity levels, in the case of grass pea, and resistance to pests, diseases and environmental stresses can be passed on to crops, making them more resilient and better equipped to deal with climate change. 

The development of low toxin varieties of grass pea is a matter of food security and is something that will have a direct impact on the health and livelihood of thousands of people. Grass pea takes on a special importance in the light of climate change since tolerance to drought and flooding are characteristics that give the crop an advantage in stressful conditions.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The  Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plants worldwide, focusing on those plants which are under threat and those which are of most use in the future. Once seeds have been collected they are dried, packaged and stored at -20°C in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average weight of 1,000 seeds = 98.5 g

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One

Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant can be dried to a low moisture content without significantly reducing their viability. This means they are suitable for long-term frozen storage)

Germination testing: Successful

This species at Kew

Pressed and dried specimens of grass pea are held in Kew's Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details and images, of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.

Distribution
India, Nepal
Ecology
Grasspea grows well in areas with an average annual rainfall of 400-650 mm/year and an average temperature of 10-25°C.
Conservation
Widespread in cultivation.
Hazards

The crop is harmless to humans in small quantities. However, eating it as a major part of the diet over an extended period can cause permanent paralysis below the knees in adults and brain damage in children, a disorder known as lathyrism.

[ILDIS]

International Legume Database and Information Service

Conservation
Cultigen not known in the wild
Ecology
Africa: Cultivated
Morphology General Habit
Annual, Climbing, Herb
Vernacular
Akervial, Almorta, Assar, Blue Vetchling, Burchak, Chicharo, Chickling Pea, Chickling Vetch, China Aziatskaya, China Posevnaya, Chyna Pasyaounaya, Cicerchia, Dholl Kessari, Ekin Kululche, Gesse Blanche, Gesse Cultivee, Grass Pea, Grass Peavine, Grasspea,

[KSP]
Use
Food, fodder, hay, green manure, medicinal.

[ILDIS]
Use
Chemical products, Environmental, Food and Drink, Forage, Medicine, Toxins, Weed

Native to:

Bulgaria, Yugoslavia

Introduced into:

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Assam, Austria, Azores, Baltic States, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Buryatiya, Canary Is., Central European Rus, China North-Central, Chita, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, East Aegean Is., East European Russia, East Himalaya, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Great Britain, Greece, Haiti, Hungary, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jawa, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kirgizstan, Krasnoyarsk, Kriti, Krym, Lebanon-Syria, Libya, Madeira, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, North Caucasus, North European Russi, Northwest European R, Pakistan, Palestine, Portugal, Queensland, Romania, South European Russi, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Switzerland, Tadzhikistan, Tanzania, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkey-in-Europe, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Victoria, West Himalaya, West Siberia, Yemen

English
Grass pea

Lathyrus sativus L. appears in other Kew resources:

Date Reference Identified As Barcode Type Status
s.coll. [Cat. no. 5953], India K001122632
Cope, T.A. [RBG 526], Great Britain K000914210
s.coll. [Cat. no. 5953] K001122633
s.coll. [Cat. no. 5953] K001122631
Switzerland K000195747

First published in Sp. Pl.: 730 (1753)

Accepted by

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  • Authier, P. & Covillot, J. (2011). Catalogue actualisé des plantes de l'île de Rhodes (Grèce) Saussurea; Travaux de la Société Botanique de Genève 41: 131-170.
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  • Chrtková-Zertová, A., van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Rechinger, K.H. (1979). Papilionaceae I - Vicieae Flora Iranica 140: 1-89. Naturhistorisches Museums Wien.
  • Danihelka, J. Chrtek, J. & Kaplan, Z. (2012). Checklist of vascular plants of the Czech Republic Preslia. Casopsi Ceské Botanické Spolecnosti 84: 647-811.
  • Darbyshire, I., Kordofani, M., Farag, I., Candiga, R. & Pickering, H. (eds.) (2015). The Plants of Sudan and South Sudan: 1-400. Kew publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Dimopoulos, P., Raus, T., Bergmeier, E., Constantinidis, T., Iatrou, G., Kokkini, S., Strid, A., & Tzanoudakis, D. (2013). Vascular plants of Greece. An annotated checklist: 1-372. Botanic gardens and botanical museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin and Hellenic botanical society, Athens.
  • Dobignard, A. & Chatelain, C. (2012). Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 4: 1-431. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.
  • Figueiredo, E. & Smith, G.F. (2008). Plants of Angola Strelitzia 22: 1-279. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Greuter, W., Burdet, H.M. & Long, G. (eds.) (1989). Med-checklist 4: 1-458. Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de la Ville de Genève.
  • Hong, D.Y. (ed.) (2019). Flora of Pan-Himalaya 19(6): 1-130. Science Press, Beijing. Cambridge University Press.
  • Jørgensen, P.M. & León-Yánes, S. (eds.) (1999). Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Ecuador: 1-1181. Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis.
  • Kumar, S. & Sane, P.V. (2003). Legumes of South Asia. A Checklist: 1-536. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Kumar, S. (2012). Herbaceous flora of Jaunsar-Bawar (Uttarkhand), India: enumerations Phytotaxonomy 12: 33-56.
  • Lazkov, G.A. & Sultanova, B.A. (2011). Checklist of vascular plants of Kyrgyzstan Norrlinia 24: 1-166.
  • Lepschi, B. & Monro, A. (Project Coordinators) (2014). Australian Plant Census (APC) Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria. http://www.anbg.gov.au/chah/apc/index.html.
  • Lock, J.M. & Ford, C.S. (2004). Legumes of Malesia a Check-List: 1-295. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Lock, J.M. (1989). Legumes of Africa a check-list: 1-619. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Maliya, S.D. & Datt, B. (2010). A contribution to the flora of Katarniyaghat wildlife sanctuary, Baharaich district, Uttar Pradesh Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 34: 42-68.
  • Meena, S.L. (2012). A checklist of the vascular plants of Banaskantha district, Gujarat, India Nelumbo 54: 39-91.
  • Mostaph, M.K. & Uddin, S.B. (2013). Dictionary of plant names of Bangladesh, Vasc. Pl.: 1-434. Janokalyan Prokashani, Chittagong, Bangladesh.
  • Nikitin, V.V. (ed.) (1949). Flora Turkmenii 4: 1-364. Turkmenskoe gosudarstvennoe izd., Ashkhabad.
  • Sikarwar, R.L.S. (2014). Angiosperm diversity assessment of Chitrakootthe legendary place of Vindhyan range, India Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 38: 563-619.
  • Townsend, C.C. (1974). Flora of Iraq 3: 1-662. Ministry of Agriculture & Agrarian Reform, Baghdad.
  • Wood, J.R.I. (1997). A handbook of the Yemen Flora: 1-434. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Yakovlev, G.P., Sytin, A.K. & Roskov, Y.R. (1996). Legumes of Northern Eurasia. A checklist: 1-724. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Literature

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Kew Species Profiles

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Kew Backbone Distributions

  • Acevedo-Rodríguez, P. & Strong, M.T. (2012). Catalogue of seed plants of the West Indies Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 98: 1-1192.
  • Authier, P. & Covillot, J. (2011). Catalogue actualisé des plantes de l'île de Rhodes (Grèce) Saussurea; Travaux de la Société Botanique de Genève 41: 131-170.
  • Boulos, L. (1999). Flora of Egypt 1: 1-419. Al Hadara Publishing, Cairo.
  • Chrtková-Zertová, A., van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Rechinger, K.H. (1979). Papilionaceae I - Vicieae Flora Iranica 140: 1-89. Naturhistorisches Museums Wien.
  • Danihelka, J. Chrtek, J. & Kaplan, Z. (2012). Checklist of vascular plants of the Czech Republic Preslia. Casopsi Ceské Botanické Spolecnosti 84: 647-811.
  • Dimopoulos, P., Raus, T., Bergmeier, E., Constantinidis, T., Iatrou, G., Kokkini, S., Strid, A., & Tzanoudakis, D. (2013). Vascular plants of Greece. An annotated checklist: 1-372. Botanic gardens and botanical museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin and Hellenic botanical society, Athens.
  • Dobignard, A. & Chatelain, C. (2012). Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 4: 1-431. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.
  • Figueiredo, E. & Smith, G.F. (2008). Plants of Angola Strelitzia 22: 1-279. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Greuter, W., Burdet, H.M. & Long, G. (eds.) (1989). Med-checklist 4: 1-458. Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de la Ville de Genève.
  • Jørgensen, P.M. & León-Yánes, S. (eds.) (1999). Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Ecuador: 1-1181. Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis.
  • Kumar, S. & Sane, P.V. (2003). Legumes of South Asia. A Checklist: 1-536. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Kumar, S. (2012). Herbaceous flora of Jaunsar-Bawar (Uttarkhand), India: enumerations Phytotaxonomy 12: 33-56.
  • Lazkov, G.A. & Sultanova, B.A. (2011). Checklist of vascular plants of Kyrgyzstan Norrlinia 24: 1-166.
  • Lepschi, B. & Monro, A. (Project Coordinators) (2014). Australian Plant Census (APC) Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria. http://www.anbg.gov.au/chah/apc/index.html.
  • Lock, J.M. & Ford, C.S. (2004). Legumes of Malesia a Check-List: 1-295. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Lock, J.M. (1989). Legumes of Africa a check-list: 1-619. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Maliya, S.D. & Datt, B. (2010). A contribution to the flora of Katarniyaghat wildlife sanctuary, Baharaich district, Uttar Pradesh Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 34: 42-68.
  • Mostaph, M.K. & Uddin, S.B. (2013). Dictionary of plant names of Bangladesh, Vasc. Pl.: 1-434. Janokalyan Prokashani, Chittagong, Bangladesh.
  • Townsend, C.C. (1974). Flora of Iraq 3: 1-662. Ministry of Agriculture & Agrarian Reform, Baghdad.
  • Tutin, T.G. & al. (eds.) (1968). Flora Europaea 2: 1-469. Cambridge University Press.
  • Wood, J.R.I. (1997). A handbook of the Yemen Flora: 1-434. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Wu, Z. & Raven, P.H. (eds.) (2010). Flora of China 10: 1-642. Science Press (Beijing) & Missouri Botanical Garden Press (St. Louis).
  • Yakovlev, G.P., Sytin, A.K. & Roskov, Y.R. (1996). Legumes of Northern Eurasia. A checklist: 1-724. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

International Legume Database and Information Service

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Herbarium Catalogue Specimens
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

International Legume Database and Information Service
International Legume Database and Information Service (ILDIS) V10.39 Nov 2011
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Backbone Distributions
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Science Photographs
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Kew Species Profiles
Kew Species Profiles
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0