Uses of Partridge Pea

As everything is dry and brown here in north central Florida, I am missing the autumn fields full of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) blossoms—bright yellow flowers on extensive branches of fernlike leaves. When a plant is abundant, I always wonder if it is native, and if it is, I know there must be uses for it. Before the luxury of grocery stores and markets, human beings naturally turned to what was around them for food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. Out of necessity we learned what gifts the plants in our environment offered, and we put them to use.

Partridge pea is native annual and member of the pea family (Fabaceae) that blankets open fields, pinelands, and at the edges of woodlands throughout Florida during the late summer and early fall. The leaves of C. fasciculata, like its cousin C. nictitans, are sensitive to the touch and will fold up under various conditions. I have particularly noticed this when I am pulling undesired exotics in a patch of field near partridge pea. The leaves begin folding up as I advance as if to say, “Please don’t pull me up!”

C. fasciculata and C. nictitans have traditional medicinal uses among indigenous people, and were also used by early settlers, most notably the Shakers (Austin). The seed pods are eaten by mice, deer, and birds, particularly quail. In addition, the bushy plants grow close together, each forming a small canopy, and make excellent cover for the birds as well. The flowers attract bees, butterflies and other insects.

Yellow butterflies (cloudless sulphurs) swarm the bushes in the late summer and early fall, flitting in and out the partridge pea making it seem as if the flowers themselves are airborne!

Bees also hover around partridge pea, but the nectar they seek is from orange glands at the base of each leaf rather than from the flower. Even ants can be found crawling up the stalks to get to the sweet nectar.

Identification
C. fasciculata grows to about 3 feet, but may be become stunted if repeatedly mowed or when growing in areas of too much shade. Leaves: Feathery; innately compound and made of many tiny leaflets; alternate. The leaves of C. fasciculata fold up in the evening and the leaves of C. nictitans close when touched. The flimsy yellow 5-petaled flowers are a little more than an inch (2 cm) and often have reddish-purple markings near the base on the inside. C. fasciculata may flower throughout the year, but are most robust in the late summer and early autumn. The flowers of C. nictitans are much smaller as is the entire plant. Seed pods: The narrow and hairy pea pods are 1 to nearly 3 inches (3–7 cm)

Medicinal Uses
C. fasciculata is not commonly used as a modern herbal, but the Cherokee and Seminole people used the plant in several ways medicinally including as a tonic for athletes to keep them from tiring (root). Seminole people also used a plant infusion to treat nausea and stomachaches; a decoction to treat urinary tract infections (Austin). The moistened, bruised leaves were used to treat topical sores, and a cold infusion of the pea pods were used to ease sore throats (when soaked the pods become mucilaginous). The leaves were used to make a tea to prevent fainting. Syrups (decoctions) with added honey were given to treat nausea (Allen, Bond, and Main)

Consider partridge pea a remedy when you require a demulcent, (pods), an astringent, or a purgative.

Constituents and Nutrients
C. fasciculata is high in phosphorus and protein but contains little fiber. There is no data on whether or not these nutrients are available for absorption in human consumption, and while wildlife seems to eat the foliage with impunity, domestic livestock should not be allowed to graze on this plant.

Medicinal Preparations
Decoctions, infusions, poultices. Syrups were made by boiling parts of the plant in water and then straining the mixture and adding a second ingredient to improve the flavor.

Cautions
Note that some authors (see Austin) indicate the leaves and seeds are a purgative and that consumption may cause gastrointestinal cramping in the same manner as senna. Fennel seed can be added to an infusion to mitigate this reaction. And while deer can browse C. fasciculata, livestock has been poisoned from this plant.

Note for the Kitchen
Despite its abundance, this is not a plant for the table. However, the plants were used by Mikasuki and Creek people to assist in the ripening of persimmons. This was done by layering the plants with the persimmons in a pit and allowing the fruit to ripen (Austin).

To Learn More

    Allen, G. M., M. D. Bond, and M. B. Main. 2002. 50 Common Native Plants Important In Florida’s Ethnobotanical History. Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida.

    Austin, D. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

    Bennett, B. C. 1997 “An Introduction to Seminole People and Their Plants.” The Palmetto. 17:16–24

    Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland OR: Timber Press Inc.

    USDA Plant database. http://plants.usda.gov

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