Lathyrus pratensis

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Name: Lathyrus pratensis L.

Family: Fabaceae, the pea family

Common Names: Meadow pea, meadow vetchling, yellow vetchling, meadow pea-vine, common vetchling, cicerchia dei prati (Italian) (1,4,6,11,17).

Latyrus pratensis Malcolm Storey Permission 2 P33076Etymology: Lathyrus comes from the Greek word Lathyros; the prefix la- meaning “very,” and suffix –thyros meaning “passionate.” Pratensis is derived from Latin, meaning “of meadows.” (7).

Botanical synonyms: Orobus pratensis (12).

Quick Notable Features (1):
¬ Flowers less than 2cm long, bright yellow
¬ Branched tendril at the end of the 2-foliolate leaf
¬ Stems without wings
¬ Stipules with 2 basal lobes

Plant Height: L. pratensis grows to 1.2m tall (3).

Subspecies/varieties recognized (5):
L. pratensis subsp. velutinus (DC.) Kerguélen

Most Likely Confused with:  Lathyrus tuberosus, L. latifolius, L. sylvestris, Lotus corniculatus, and Vicia spp.

Habitat Preference: The species grows in a range of soil textures (sand to clay). It prefers full sunlight and moist soils. It is found in meadows, fields, bogs, and along hedges or roads (3).

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: L. pratensis has escaped cultivation in Michigan and become established in seven counties in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas (1).

Known Elevational Distribution: The species occurs at 3000m above sea level in Nepal (13).

Complete Geographic Distribution: L. pratensis is native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. In Europe, the species is more common in northern regions, including Scandinavia, than in the Mediterranean. In west and central Asia, it ranges from the Himalayan region to Siberia. The introduced range includes the USA (AK, CT, IL, MA, ME, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, VA, VT, WA, WI), Canada (BC, NB, NF, NS, ON, PE, QC), Denmark (GL), Japan, and New Zealand (4,10,11,13).

Vegetative Plant Description: Lathyrus pratenis is a decumbent or scrambling to climbing perennial with thin rhizomes, often forming large mats, with stems that are glabrous or pubescent and angled, but unwinged. The alternate leaves are two-foliolate, with the leaf apex modified into a simple or branched tendril. The elliptic to linear-lanceolate leaflets have acute apices, parallel venation, and light pubescence; the leaflets are 1-4cm in length and 0.15-1.1cm in width. Two unequally sagittate, leaf-like stipules (1-3cm long) are present at the base of each leaf (7,10,14,16).

Climbing Mechanism: L. pratensis climbs using the tendril at the leaf apex. The tendrils are sensitive to contact, allowing the meadow vetchling to climb neighboring plants or fences (16).

Meadow_vetchling_close_800Flower Description: The 5-12 flowered inflorescence is an axillary raceme, with individual flowers 1-1.6cm long. The calyx bears triangular-subulate teeth, approximately equal in length to the calyx tube: both are glabrous. The yellow, zygomorphic, papilionaceous corolla has 5 petals: a standard, 2 free wing petals, and 2 fused petals (the keel). The stamens are diadelphous, with 9 of the 10 stamens united by the filaments, and one free. The single style is flattened and hairy along the side next to the free stamen. There is a single stigma on the style. The unilocular, superior ovary has ovules arranged in two rows (7,10,13,16).

Flowering Time: Flowering occurs from June to August in China (9).

Lathyrus_pratensis_L._030705_B Landry with permissionPollinator: Members of the genus Lathyrus are, in general, bee-pollinated (8).

Fruit Type and Description: The fruit of L. pratensis is a straight, elongate, glabrous legume (2-3cm long x 0.5-0.6cm wide). Each legume contains 4-8 seeds. After the seeds are released from the legume, the two valves coil (14,16).

Seed Description: The ovoid to rounded seeds are smooth surfaced, and may be olive, brown or black in color. They measure approximately 2-4mm in diameter (16, Image 5).

Dispersal Syndrome: The legumes are dehiscent, forcibly expeling seeds from the fruit (16).

Lathyrus.pratensis3Distinguished by: Like L. pratensis, L. tuberosus has unwinged stems and sagittate stipules. L. tuberosus differs in its elliptic leaflets, tuberous roots, and bright pink flowers. L. sylvestris and L. latifolius also have 2-foliolate leaves and glabrous legumes. L. sylvestris has linear leaflets, but they are 5-15cm in length, longer than those of L. pratensis, and the flowers of L. sylvestris are pink to purple, the stems are winged. L. latifolius is differentiated by its winged stems, broader leaflets (4-9cm long by 1-3cm wide) than those of L. pratensis, and L. latifolius has bright pink flowers. Lotus corniculatus also has a yellow papilionaceous corolla of the same size (1-1.6mm) and appearance of that of Lathyrus pratensis. The leaves, habit, and inflorescence help differentiate the two species. Lotus corniculatus is a short, spreading herb with an umbellate inflorescence and 5-foliolate leaves; the terminal leaflet is not modified into a tendril.
Lathyrus spp. are generally very similar to Vicia. The flowers can be differentiated by mostly free wings, which are adherent to the keel petals in Vicia spp., and the widened, flattened style with hairs along the inner side in Lathyrus, in comparison to the filiform style with apical hairs found in Vicia flowers. Without flowers, Lathyrus can usually be distinguished from Vicia by the size and shape of the stipules. In Lathyrus, the stipules are hastate to semi-sagittate and more than 7mm broad, with the exceptions of L. palustris and L. venosus, which have smaller stipules. Species in the genus Vicia have semi-sagittate to lanceolate stipules that are less than 7mm broad. Importantly, no species in  the genus Vicia has 2-foliolate leaves; instead each leaf has at least 4 leaflets (1,7,14).

lapr_002_lhpOther members of the family in Michigan (number species): Amorpha (2), Amphicarpaea (1), Anthyllis (1), Apios (1), Astragalus (3), Baptisia (3), Caragana (1), Cercis (1), Chamaecrista (2), Crotalaria (1), Cytisus (1), Dalea (2), Desmanthus (1), Desmodium (12), Galega (1), Gleditsia (1), Glycine (1), Gymnocladus (1), Hedysarum (1), Hylodesmum (2), Kummerowia (1), Lathyrus (9), Lespedeza (9), Lotus (1), Lupinus (3), Medicago (3), Melilotus (3), Mimosa (1), Orbexilum (1), Phaseolus (2), Pisum (1), Pueraria (1), Robinia (2), Securigera (1), Senna (2), Strophostyles (1), Tephrosia (1), Trifolium (10), Vicia (10), Vigna (1), and Wisteria (2) (source 1).

Ethnobotanical Uses: In Spain, the seeds of Lathyrus pratensis are used to reduce swelling and inflammation. Some species of Lathyrus are edible, but because this genus also includes species that may be toxic, always be sure to double check edibility before consuming any part of a Lathyrus (3).

FABALathyruspratensisMAPPhylogenetic Information: The genus Lathyrus is a member of the subfamily Papilionoideae (Faboideae) in the Fabaceae family, which is in the order Fabales, part of the Rosids I, Core Eudicots.  Members of the Fabaceae family are distributed worldwide, and the family contains approximately 9.4% of all eudicots and 16% of all known woody plants found in neotropical rainforests (2).

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above: The European Food Safety Authority was unable to validate claims that Lathyrus pratensis improves respiratory health by reducing bronchial inflammation and promoting expectoration (15).

Literature and websites used:

  1. Michigan Flora Online. A.A. Reznicek, E.G. Voss, & B.S. Walters February 2011. University of Michigan. Web. April 25, 2012.
  2. Stevens, P.F. Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 12, July 2012.
  3. Plants For A Future, 1996-2012. Accessed: 11 June 2012.
  4. USDA Plants. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Center,
  5. Missouri Botanical Garden. Accessed: 11 June 2012.
  6. Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium Website. Accessed 11 June 2012.
  7. Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th ed. New York: American Book Company.
  8. Badr, S.F. 2007. Karyotype Analysis and Chromosome Evolution in Species of Lathyrus (Fabaceae). Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences 10: 49-56.
  9. Mu Di Shan Li Dou. Flora of China, Vol. 10 (Fabaceae). 2010. Science Press, Beijing, and Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis. (Online).
  10. A.R. Clapham, T.G. Tutin, & E.F. Warburg 1987. Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.
  11. Global Biodiversity Information Facility Website. Accessed: 11 June 2012.
  12. The Plant List, 2010. Ver. 1. Internet published (accessed 12 June 2012).
  13. Press, J.R., K.K. Shrestha, & D.A. Sutton. 2000. Annotated Checklist of the Flowering Plants of Nepal. The Natural History Museum. Accessed online: 12 June 2012.
  14. Flora of Pakistan. 2012. Missouri Botanical Garden. Accessed 12 June 2012.
  15. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 2009. Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to Lathyrus pratensis L. and function of the upper respiratory tract (ID 2456) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal; 7(9): 1296. Parma, Italy.
  16. Encyclopedia of Life. – physical_description. Accessed 19 June 2012.
  17. Flora Italiana Website. Accessed: 11 June 2012.
  18. Zomlefer, W.B. 1994. Guide to Flowering Plant Families. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Image Credits (all used with permission):
1) Image of plant habit from North Hampshire © Malcolm Storey, Image P33076
2) Image of stipules © Louis-M. Landry from
3) Image of flowers © Sannse Carter Cushway from
4) Image of legume © J.K. Lindsey form the Ecology of Commanster Website at
5) Image of seeds courtesy of Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
6) Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.


Primary Authors: Jenna E. Dorey, revisions & editing by John Bradtke, Cristine V. Santanna, and Robyn J. Burnham.

© Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan

For additional information on Michigan Plant Diversity species accounts, please contact Robyn J. Burnham via email: rburnham“at”