Clitoria ternatea: Butterfly pea

Family: Fabaceae
Common name: Butterfly pea, Darwin pea, Asian pigeonwings, Blue pea, Bluebellvine, Cordofan pea

Butterfly pea plants are very beautiful and useful at the same time; an essential in any garden. They belong to the Pea family of Fabaceae and has all the typical characteristics of climbing, creeping or trailing stems; long fruit pods that contain seeds, and nitrogen fixing bacteria in the roots.

The stem is woody at the base, but otherwise thin, green and slightly hairy, growing to a length of about 5 meters. They can trail on the ground, or climb on garden structures, fences, trees or other surrounding vegetation.

To say that Butterfly pea flowers are stunning, is an understatement. They are deep blue with yellow and white markings towards the base of the flowers; and radiating lines towards the tip of the petals. Flowers are 5 petaled, having one extra-large, prominent rounded petal, 2 smaller blue petals, and 2 tiny white petals guarding the reproductive organs.

Filaments and anthers are not visible unless you part the petals and look inside. Butterfly pea leaves are pinnate with 6-7 leaflets on each branch. There are variants with double flowers, and white flowers as well. Fruits pods are flat, about 6-8 cms long with 8-10 seeds inside. They are initially green and turns brown on maturity, after which they burst open releasing shiny black seeds all around.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the root absorb atmospheric nitrogen and convert into a form of nitrogen that is usable by plants; a process known as nitrogen cycle.

Butterfly pea plants are grown as ornamental plants, for food and medicine and for livestock fodder. Young seed pods are edible and rich in proteins. The deep blue color of the leaves, makes it a natural coloring agent for rice, sweets and beverages.

Some of the color changing drinks like Butterfly pea flower tea, and color changing gin depend on butterfly pea flowers for their color. The colors of these beverages change depending on what is mixed in it, like lemon juice or tonic water. The flowers are also used for making tea; and are also eaten batter fried.

Butterfly pea plants are extremely important in Ayurvedic medicine, called ‘Shankhu pushpam’ in Malayalam. It is used as an anti-depressant, to enhance memory and motor functions; and also to treat asthma, diabetes, fever, pain and arthritis. The chemicals contained in these flowers have strong insecticidal properties.

Propagation is through seeds.

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