Butterfly pea flower plant

What Is A Butterfly Pea Plant: Tips On Planting Butterfly Pea Flowers

What is a butterfly pea? Also known as spurred butterfly pea vines, climbing butterfly pea or wild blue vine, butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) is a trailing vine that produces pinkish-blue or violet blooms in spring and summer. As the name suggests, butterfly pea flowers are favored by butterflies, but birds and bees love them, too. Centrosema includes about 40 species around the world, but only three are native to the United States. Read on to learn more about spurred butterfly pea plants.

Growing Spurred Butterfly Pea Vines

Spurred butterfly pea vines are suitable for growing in USDA plant hardiness zones 10 and 11, but you can grow the vines as annuals if you live in a cooler climate.

Spurred butterfly pea plants are easy to grow from seed, either by planting directly in the garden in spring, or by starting them indoors about 12 weeks ahead of time. Lightly nick or scrape the seeds, and then let them soak overnight in room temperature water before planting. Seeds generally germinate in two to three weeks.

Butterfly pea flowers grow in nearly any type of soil, including nutrient-poor, but sandy, acidic soil is preferable. Good drainage is critical, as spurred butterfly pea plants won’t tolerate soggy growing conditions.

Plant butterfly pea flowers where the vines have plenty of room to sprawl, or let the delicate stems climb over a trellis or fence. This is an excellent plant for any lighting condition, including full sunlight, shade or semi-shade.

Butterfly Pea Plant Care

Butterfly pea plant care is definitely uninvolved and the plants require very little attention. Here are a handful of tips to ensure your spurred butterfly pea vines grow and bloom like crazy.

Water the plant regularly during the first growing season, but beware of overwatering. Spurred butterfly pea vines are drought tolerant and, once established, require supplemental irrigation only during periods of hot, dry weather.

Pinch growing tips regularly to encourage bushy growth and prevent legginess. No fertilizer is required.

Butterfly Pea – How to Grow for The Native Wildlife Garden

Centrosema virginianum and Clitoria mariana are North American native perennial herbaceous leguminous vines with potential for the wildlife garden.

When plants have the same common name, they are often very dissimilar. Such is not the case with two butterfly peas, Centrosema virginianum, the spurred or climbing butterfly pea and its close cousin, Clitoria mariana, the Atlantic pigeonwings.

Butterfly Pea Plant

The Flower Face

The shape of the flower looks like a butterfly, hence botanists describe the five-petaled flower form as papilionaceous from the Latin word papilio meaning butterfly.

Both butterfly pea flowers have a large posterior platform petal topped with two small lateral petals called wings and two smaller petals called keels at the center. Centrosema’s circular floral platform, violet to violet-pink, expires in a day. Clitoria’s oblong flower, light blue to pale pinkish purple, persists for several days.

Both wildflower vines bloom throughout summer. The large posterior platform petal serves as a landing site for pollinators that follow colored markings of white, purple or yellow to guide them to the nectar beneath the central keels. Bees, flies and butterflies maneuver to the interior of the flower.

Butterfly Pea Pods

One result of pollinator labor is seed. Following flowers fruit known as pods form. Centrosema grows slender flat pods 3-6 inches long. Pods twist open when dry releasing 10-20 seeds per pod from July through November.

Clitoria has flat smooth pods which are 1-2 inches long and contain 2-6 black seeds. As pods dry, they twist open revealing sticky adhesive seed.

Butterfly Pea Leaves

Centrosema and Clitoria have alternate compound dark green leaves with three leaflets. The underside of Centrosema is light green and the underside of Clitoria is coarsely veined.

Golden-banded skippers lay strings of 2-7 eggs on the underside and base of Clitoria leaflets. Their green-bodied caterpillars with reddish-brown heads live in rolled up leaves and emerge at night to feed on leaves.

Butterfly gardeners might consider growing this vine just for the colorful caterpillars.

How To Grow Butterfly Peas

Home gardeners may find these vines growing naturally in wild areas of their property. They like sunny or partially sunny locations.

These native plants have adapted to acid soils, dry soils, woodlands, and pinewoods of the eastern and southeastern United States. If these plants are native to your area, they may not require a great deal of soil preparation.

Both vines are modest and delicate rather than bold and invasive in growth habit. Centrosema spreads and twines 6-12 feet. Clitoria spreads 3-4 feet.

A lacy latticework or screen would make a man-made support. These vines will use neighboring vegetation to climb without harm to them.

Propagation of Butterfly Pea

Butterfly pea is grown from seed. Native seed suppliers like Roundstone and native plant nurseries carry the plants.

Nitrogen Fix with Butterfly Pea

Nitrogen is an essential element for all plants. Legumes like butterfly peas are capable of adding nitrogen to the soil for plants through a symbiotic relationship between Rhizobia bacteria living in nodules of the roots. The bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen to nitrate in the soil for the plant to use.

Gardeners who grow native legumes do not rely on chemical fertilizers to supply nitrogen.

Uses for Wildlife

Besides attracting pollinators to the garden, songbirds and bobwhite come for the seeds. Birds help disperse the seed to new locations.

White-tailed deer consider the vine good browse.

Two of a kind butterfly peas like Centrosema virginianum and Clitoria mariana are easy-to-grow enduring representatives for the native wildlife garden.

2 Shares

It wasn’t long after getting into brewing kombucha that I came across butterfly pea tea, which intrigued me just with it’s name. Its a little known herbal tea that’s actually got a bit of a magical quality to it; it changes color from a deep blue to a bright pink when you add any acids to it like lemon juice or kombucha culture depending on the concentration of the acid.

It’s gained a lot of popularity as a tea for brewing kombucha partially because it’s so fun but also because it works. Not all tea types work with brewing kombucha and some are finicky at best but especially with a blend of green tea butterfly pea tea generally goes off without a hitch, most people’s barrier to using it is lack of availability. It’s often blended with green tea (and lemon of course) because it’s basically flavorless despite it’s cool color.

So last year, because I live in Acapulco, Mexico and cannot return to the states I asked a friend who was on her way here to smuggle some butterfly pea seeds for me. In the months after I found people in Acapulco are already growing this plant seemingly for it’s showy flowers, they just grow a more frilly variety than what I had brought to me. I know my neighbors here grow this but I have no idea if they know you can make a tea out of it. Someday soon I’ll try and talk to them about it, just have to practice my Spanish!

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Butterfly pea tea is simple, consists of the flowers from Clitoria ternatea plant which also has edible pods when they’re young, like most pea varieties. They grow prolifically as a perennial when the climate permits and are extremely drought tolerant once they’re established so they’re pretty ideal for this climate. Like all other legumes it’s a nitrogen fixer but my personal experience tells me that once established this is one of the easiest and prettiest peas to grow out there.

Starting Butterfly Pea Seeds

I started my peas in damp paper towel in a baggy in a dark place, checking daily until the root started to pole through the swollen seed. They were then planted directly into soil to get established. Once their first true leaves are out they can be put into the ground. I avoid planting directly here in Acapulco because the ants are more likely to walk off with my seed before it sprouts, or the mold will get to it and kill it due to the wet season. Many people are of the belief that you shouldn’t transplant beans but I’ve always found so long as you don’t wait to long and are careful it’s generally fine and sometimes it’s still fine even if you’re late on the transplant.

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Once transplanted so long as they get plenty of water (but not too much) and direct sunlight these will thrive. The majority of the seeds I brought with me from the United States do not grow here as well, not because they do not grow but because there are so many pests of mold and bugs both that make it so only the hardy or the heavily tended plants survive. I’ve had many people ask me about farming here, where there is no winter and I always tell them from a farmers standpoint winter is better, less bugs, more time off.

Harvesting Butterfly Pea Blooms for Tea

Before long, if you’ve planted these in your garden you’ll notice the flowers come early and they don’t stop. At first I was on top of the harvest but have since fallen behind as I try to address other things in life. Regardless these have taken off and have more blossoms than ever, begging to be picked and dried.

I dry these on a paper towel until dry to the touch and use them for tea then or put into a glass jar for storage. Fresh flowers can be used for tea but I find it needs to be boiled which likely removes any of the possible health benefits from the tea that are there.

Stay tuned, Next I’ll share how to make the tea and what the health benefits are!

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