Vicia cracca

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Name: Vicia cracca L.

Family: Fabaceae (the Pea family)

Common Names: Tufted Vetch, Bird Vetch, Cow Vetch, Canada pea 

2033Etymology: Vicia is Latin for the common name “Vetch”. Cracca is Latin for any type of pulse or legume (2). 

Botanical synonyms (18):
Ervum cracca (L.) Trautv.,
Vicia hiteropus Freyn,
Vicia lilacina Ledeb.
Vicia macrophylla B. Fedtsch

Quick Notable Features:
¬ Leaves terminated by a split tendril
¬ Has a single-sided, dense raceme of purple legume flowers
¬ Ballistic seed dispersal 

Plant Height: V. cracca can grow up to 2m long and 1 meter in height (1,3). 

Subspecies/varieties recognized: (3,4,18)
Vicia cracca subsp. atroviolacea (Bornm.) P.H. Davis, Vicia cracca var.canescens (Maxim.) Franch. & Sav., Vicia cracca subsp. craccaVicia cracca var. cracca, Vicia cracca subsp. galloprovincinalis Asch. & Graebn., Vicia cracca subsp. Gerardii (W.D.J. Koch) Briq., Vicia cracca var. gerardii W.D.J. Koch, Vicia cracca var. grossheimii Radti, Vicia cracca subsp. imbricata Rouy, Vicia cracca ssp. incana (Gouan) Rouy , Vicia cracca var. lilacina (Ledeb.) Krylov, Vicia cracca subsp. oreophila (Zertova) Á. Löve & D. Löve, Vicia cracca ssp. stenophylla (Velen.) P.H. Davis, Vicia cracca var. tenuifolia (Roth) G. Beck, Vicia cracca subsp. tenuifolia Gaudin, Vicia cracca subsp. vulgaris Schinz & R. Keller

Most Likely Confused with: Other legumes in the same genus such as Vicia americana, V. carolina, V. tetrasperma, and V. villosa. Other species in the Fabaceae possibly confused are Amphicarpaea bracteata and Apios americana, Desmodium rotundifolium. Lathyrus japonicus, L. latifolius, L. ochroleucus, L. palustris, L. pratensis, L. sylvestris, L. tuberosus, and L. venosus, Phaseolus polystachios, P. vulgaris, Pisum sativum,  Pueraria lobata, Strophostyles helvula, Wisteria frutescens, and W. sinensis.

Habitat Preference: Vicia cracca can grow in coarse, fine, and medium textured soils.  It also grows in fields and near roadsides and railroads. It grows in soils with a pH between 4.9 and 7 (4,5,17).

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: Found throughout Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas (5).

2031Known Elevation Distribution: In California, V. cracca can be found from 0 to 1500m (6), but up to 4200m above sea level in China (20).

Complete Geographic Distribution: Vicia cracca is native to Europe and temperate Asia.  It has been introduced to most of the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and Canada. Exceptions are AZ, CO, FL, KS, LA, MS, ND, NE, NM, NV, OK, SC, and TX (4,15).   It was first reported as introduced in 1860 at Prescott, Ontario by Aarssen et al. 1986 (17).

Vegetative Plant Description: Vicia cracca is a perennial vine.  The alternate, pubescent, glaucous, compound leaves are 6-12cm in length, each with a well-developed 2-3 branched tendril at the tip and entire to semi-hastate stipules at the base.  The leaves bear 6-15 oblong to linear mucronate, silvery leaflets borne opposite one another, each 0.5-3cm in length and 0.1-0.6cm in width with indistinct mid-veins. The stem can grow to be 100 cm long (3,7,10).

Climbing Mechanism: V. cracca uses the tendrils of its terminal leaflets to climb (10).

Flower Description: V. cracca bears 10-30 flowered axillary racemes on a long peduncle all of which is longer than the subtending leaf.  The purplish-blue, pendulous perfect flowers are 0.9 to 1.2cm long.  Each flower has a swollen or enlarged campanulate calyx tube that is 2 to 3cm in length, sometimes petaloid and often with the lower teeth narrower than the upper teeth. The corolla is typical of the pea-family: zygomorphic consisting of a clawed standard with both parts about equal in length, the keel (2 petals fused or folded together), and 2 lateral petals.  As with most legumes, the flowers bear 10 diadelphous stamens with filiform filaments. The single pistillate ovary is compressed and two-valved.  The style is long and thin with hairs at the tip (3,7,12,13,16, 20).  Experiments testing self-pollination show that although the plants can self-pollinate effectively, a large number of pods are incompletely developed when this occurs (21).

vicr_002_lhpFlowering Time: Vicia cracca blooms in late spring and may continue in bloom until August (3,4).

Pollinator: The flower is bee- and fly-pollinated (12,17).

Fruit Type and Description: Vicia cracca is a legume with a dehiscent pod.  The flattened, lanceolate, and multi-seeded (3-6) pods are 1.5-2cm in length and 0.6-1cm in width (9,13,14,19).

Seed Description: The seeds become ripe in July through September.  The brownish-yellow seeds weigh 12-25mg and are up to 3mm in length (12,18). A hilum is 1/3 to ¼ as long as the seed circumference (3).  Dormancy imposed by the seed coat is broken by temperatures alternating between 10 and 20 °C under moist conditions. 

Dispersal Syndrome: Seeds can be carried on vegetation that adheres to maintenance equipment (14). As the seedpods dry and dehisce, the seeds are dispersed ballistically, probably the only mechanism that carries the seed far from the plant (9).  Because the seeds are relatively dense, they also fall through pasture grass to the soil beneath, facilitating germination.

Distinguished by: Lathyrus leaflets are typically wider in proportion to their length than Vicia’s proportions. Desmodium, Phaseolus, Amphicarpaea, and Strophostyles have 3 leaflets while Vicia has 2, 4, or more leaflets. Pisum has longer and wider stipules than its lowest leaflets while Vicia has smaller stipules than its lowest leaflets. Wisteria is a woody vine while Vicia is herbaceous. Apios has a developed terminal leaflet while Vicia has a terminal leaflet commonly represented by a forked-tendril or bristle and Pueraria leaflets have no tendril. Vicia carolina has lax racemes while Vicia cracca had dense racemes. Vicia tetrasperma has at most 8 flowers while Vicia cracca has 10 to 30 flowers. Vicia villosa calyx is gibbous and saccate at the base while Vicia cracca is rounded and not gibbous at the base. Vicia cracca has entire stipules while Vicia americana has serrate stipules (3,5,7). 

Other members of the family in Michigan (number species): Wisteria (1), Amorpha (2), Amphicarpaea (1), Anthyllis (1), Apios (1), Astragalus (3), Baptisia (4), Caragana (1), Cercis (1), Chamaecrista (2), Cladrastis (1), Colutea (1), Crotalaria (1), Cytisus (1), Dalea (1), Desmodium (12), Genista (1), Gleditsia (1), Glycine (1), Gymnocladus (1), Hedysarum (1), Kummerowia (1), Lathyrus (10), Lespedeza (13), Lotus (1), Lupinus (2), Melilotus (2), Mimosa (1), Orbexilum (1), Phaseolus (2), Pisum (1), Pueraria (1), Robinia (3), Securigera (1), Senna (1), Strophostyles (1), Tephrosia (1), Trifolium (9), Vicia (7), Vigna (1) [4].

Ethnobotanical Uses: The leaves can be used for tea. V. cracca can also be used as a green manure as it fixes nitrogen (12).

FABAViciacraccaMAPPhylogenetic Information: Vicia cracca is a member of the Fabaceae, subfamily Faboideae.  Families Fabaceae. Polygalaceae, Quillajaceae, and Surianaceae form the Fabales order.  The Fabales, Rosales, Cucurbitales, and Fagales form a monophyletic group within the Eurosids I within the larger rosid group.  All are eudicots and angiosperms (11).

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above: Vicia cracca can be used to increase milk production in humans and other animals.  It is known as the tufted vetch because it has many flowers. Meadow voles prefer to eat V. cracca because of its high levels of protein and low levels of phenolics (8,12,14). 

Literature and websites used:

  1. Gleason, H.A. 1963. Illustrated Flora of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, Volume 2. New York, New York, USA: Hafner Publishing Company, Inc.
  2. Brown, R.W. 1956. The Composition of Scientific Words. Washington, D. C., USA:  Smithsonian Institution Press.
  3. Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th ed. New York, USA: American Book Company.
  4. USDA, Natural Resource Conservation Service. 2008. The PLANTS Database (, 10 April 2008). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
  5. Voss, E.G. 1985.  Michigan Flora Part II.  Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA: University of Michigan Press.
  6. Califlora, 2008. (April 10, 2008).
  7. McGregor R.L. 1986. Flora of the Great Plains. Lawrence, Kansas, USA: The University Press of Kansas.
  8. Bergeron, J.M., and L. Jodoin. 1987. Defining “High Quality” Food Resources of Herbivores: The Case for Meadow Voles. Oecologia 71(4): 510-517.
  9. University of Alaska Fairbanks. Alaska Committee for Noxious and Invasive Plants Management. 2004.
  10. Nolen, A. Vetch Infestations in Alaska. Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 2002.
  11. ANGIOSPERM PHYLOGENY GROUP 2003. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Botanical  Journal of the Linnean Society 141(4):399-436.
  12. Plants For A Future, 1996-2003. Last modified: June 2004.
  13. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture Website 2006. Herbarium: Accessed March 25, 2008.
  14. Alaska Invasive Species Working Group.  Invasive Fabaceae.
  15. USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Germplasm Resources Information Network.  Last modified: August 2004. bin/npgs/html/ (April 10, 2008).
  16. Hitchcock, C.L. & A. Cronquist 1973. Flora of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press.
  17. Aarssen, L.W., I.V. Hall, & K.I.N Jensen, 1986. The biology of Canadian Weeds. 76. Vicia angustifolia L., V. cracca L., V. sativa L., V. tetrasperma (L.) Schreb and V. villosa Roth. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 66: 711–737.
  18. Seefeldt, S.S., J.S. Conn, B.E. Jackson, & S.D. Sparrow 2007. Response of seedling bird Vetch (Vicia cracca) to six herbicides. Weed Technology 21:692–694.
  19. Missouri Botanical Garden. 19 Dec 2012 <
  20. Bao, B. & N.J. Turland 2010. Flora of China, Vol. 10.
  21. Eliásová, A., P. Trávnicek, B. Mandák and Z. Münzbergová 2014. Autotetraploids of Vicia cracca show a higher allelic richness in natural populations and a higher seed set after artificial selfing than diploids. Annals of Botany 113(1): 159-170.

Image Credits (all used with permission):
1) The inflorescence close up is courtesy of Louis-M. Landry from
2) The leaf close up is courtesy of Louis-M. Landry from v
3) The seed close up is courtesy of Steve Hurst from USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
4) Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.

Primary Authors: Jacob T. Bowman with modifications and contributions from John Bradtke, Becca Sonday, Cristine V. Santanna, and Robyn J. Burnham

© Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan

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