All In the Family: Fabaceae

by Andrew Keys on January 21, 2010

If you’ve ever gotten into plants at all, there are a few things you probably know about the pea family, Fabaceae. One is that most have a distinct type of flower. It’s pretty easily distinguished as a pea family flower, that typically turns into a fruit we call a legume, aka a pea pod.

The other is that Fabaceae members do a neat trick where they’re able to pull nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form they can use to nourish themselves. The expression “pulling _____ out of thin air”? Peas totally do that! You probably know it’s called nitrogen fixing, it happens because peas host a bacteria in their roots that are able to do this, and it means pea family plants can often be found growing in soil where other plants simply can’t. They also add a certain amount of that nitrogen back into the soil when they’re done, so you might be able to grow plants you couldn’t previously after peas have grown in a poor spot. Such givers, those peas! They’re like the Gandhis of the plant world. Give peas a chance.

(Ba dum bum.)

Peas are the third largest plant family, behind Orchidaceae, the orchids, and Asteraceae, the asters. There are trees that are peas and there are, well, peas that are peas. For me, peas conjure mental images from very different parts of the world. (See the pea gallery below.) For example, those elephant-browsed acacias you think of when you imagine the Serengeti? Peas. Our friend kudzu, synonymous now with images of its conquest of the American South? Pea. More? How about soy? Because beans are peas too. Yep, your edamame’s cousins are being grazed by elephants right now, and its other cousins are bent on domination of half the U.S. Who knew?

Of course, we mustn’t forget garden plants. Our old friend Baptisia Twilite Prairieblues™ is a pea too. Say hi to peas:

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