Vicia sativa

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Name: Vicia sativa L.

Family: Fabaceae, the pea family

Common Names:  Vetch, common vetch, garden vetch, tare, spring-vetch, winter tare, arveja (Spanish) (2,5,8,15).

Vicia sativaEtymology: Vicia is the Latin word for “vetch”, and sativa means “planted, cultivated” (4).

Botanical synonyms: Vicia alba, V. bacla, V. bobartii, V. canadensis, V. communis, V. cordata, V. cosentini, V. cuneata, V. erythosperma, V. glabra, V. globosa, V. incisa, V. intermedia, V. leucosperma, V. macrocarpa, V. maculata, V. melanosperma, V. morisiana, V. nemoralis, V. notota, V. pallida, V. pimpinelloides, V. subterranea, and V. vulgaris (2).

Quick Notable Features (5,7):
¬ Herbaceous vine with pubescent to glabrescent stems
¬ Stipules with brownish-purple nectaries
¬ Leaves with 8-16 leaflets, ending in a forking tendril
¬ Conspicuous, paired reddish-purple flowers
¬ Constricted legumes containing globose seeds

Plant Height: The stems can grow up to 1m long (7). 

Subspecies/varieties recognized (2):
V. sativa var. abyssinica (Alef.) Baker
V. sativa var. angustifolia (L.) Wahlenb.
V. sativa var. cordata Arcang.
9055V. sativa var. ecirrhosa J.Q. He
V. sativa var. incisa Arcang.
V. sativa var. linearis Lange
V. sativa var. macrocarpa Moris
V. sativa var. minor Ohwi
V. sativa var. nigra L.
V. sativa var. normalis Mak.
V. sativa var. platysperma Barulina
V. sativa var. sativa
V. sativa var. segetalis Ser. ex DC.
V. sativa subsp. amphicarpa Aschers & Graebn.
V. sativa subsp. angustifolia (L.) Asch. & Graebn.
V. sativa subsp. consobrina (Pomel) Quézel & Santa ex Greuter & Burdet
V. sativa subsp. cordata (Wulfen ex Hoppe) Asch. & Graebn.
V. sativa subsp. cuneata (Guss.) Maire
V. sativa subsp. heterophylla J. Duvign.
V. sativa subsp. incisa (M. Bieb.) Arcang.
V. sativa subsp. macrocarpa (Moris) Arcang.
V. sativa subsp. nigra (L.) Ehrh.
V. sativa subsp. pilosa Plitm. & D. Zoh.
V. sativa subsp. sativa
V. sativa subsp. terana (Losa) Benedi & Molero

9067Most Likely Confused with: Vicia lathyroides, V. grandiflora, V. villosa, V. americana, V. cracca, V. faba, or species of Lathyrus. 

Habitat Preference: Open sites, abandoned fields, and roadsides (5,7).

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: V. sativa is found in 26 counties scattered throughout the upper and lower peninsulas (3).

Known Elevational Distribution: The species was collected at 3176m above sea level in Cotopaxi, Ecuador and up to 3700m in China (2, 19).

Complete Geographic Distribution: Native to Europe, V. sativa was introduced to the Americas, and has become established throughout the United States (except for Utah, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands).  It is also found in Canada (BC, MB, NB, NF, NS, ON, PE, QC, YT), Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Its native range includes all of Europe except Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Montenegro, and San Marino. This species is also present in most of Asia. In Africa, it is found in Angola, Burundi, Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, Uganda, and United Republic of Tanzania. In Oceania, it is found in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Norfolk Island (8,9).

Vicia_April_2008-1Vegetative Plant Description: V. sativa is an annual, herbaceous vine or erect plant with stems that are finely pubescent to glabrate, with white trichomes. The stipules are coarsely toothed, 2-10mm long, with a dark purplish-brown nectary below. Each alternate pinnately compound leaf is made up of 8-16 leaflets; the terminal leaflet is modified as a forked tendril. The leaflets are oblong to elliptic, emarginate, mucronate, 1.5-5cm long and 0.5-1.3cm wide and short pubescent to glabrate (5,6,7,10,17).

Climbing Mechanism: The plant uses its foliar tendrils to climb (7).

Flower Description: The flowers of V. sativa (1.8-3cm long) are perfect, zygomorphic, and are borne in nearly sessile (pedicels are 2-6mm long), two-flowered clusters in the upper leaf axils. The calyx tube is campanulate (5-7mm long), and the 5 lobes (3-9mm long) are nearly uniform, the three lower lobes bearing a brown-reddish nectary on the outside. The petals (5) are purple or rarely white; the wings are sometimes reddish-purple or violet. The standard (1.8-3cm long) is obovate and overlaps the wings. The wing petals are narrower than the standard, and adherent to the keel petals, which are shorter than the wings. The stamens are 10 (fused as 9+1). The ovary is sessile or nearly so, and pubescent; the style is filiform with trichomes at the apex, and the stigma is globular (5,6,7,17).

Vicia_sativa,_mature_fruit,I_HLV841Flowering Time: V. sativa flowers in spring (April-June) (7).

Pollinator: V. sativa is insect pollinated, like other members of Vicia. Various bee species pollinate the plant, including Bombus argillaceus, B. hortorum and B. humilis. A few other species of Bombus and Apis mellifera, as well as ants, visit the extrafloral nectaries, but do not contribute to pollination (13).

Fruit Type and Description: The fruit is a partially flattened, dehiscent legume that is constricted between the 4-8 seeds, pubescent during its early stage, and brown at maturity (May-July). Each legume is usually 4-8cm long and 0.5-0.8cm wide (5,7,19).

Seed Description: The seeds are rounded-rectangular, slightly flattened, usually 5mm broad, occasionally over 6mm, varied in color and sometimes mottled.  An attachment scar, the hilum, covers 10-20% of the seed’s circumference (7,12).

Dispersal Syndrome: The seeds are ejected forcibly by the explosive dehiscence of the legumes, if animals do not ingest them first. A study measuring different aspects of ballistic seed projection found that the average projection height is 31cm, and the average speed of projected seeds is 4.65m/s. The maximum dispersal distance recorded was 9m (11).   

visa_003_lhpDistinguished by: Vicia lathyroides only grows up to 20cm tall, while V. sativa can grow up to 1m tall. Additionally, V. lathyroides has unforked tendrils. The flowers of V. lathyroides are bluish to violet in color, solitary, and a lot smaller (<1cm long) than the flowers of V. sativa. V. grandiflora has about the same number of leaflets as V. sativa, occasionally a couple less, but the leaflets are shorter (1-2cm long) and linear to obovate. The flowers of V. grandiflora are roughly the same size as in V. sativa, also paired, but the corolla is yellowish and the lobes of the sepals are shorter than the calyx tube in length. V. villosa, V. americana, V. cracca, and V. faba’s inflorescences are pedunculate and racemose, bearing 3 to many flowers, with the calyx tube swollen at the upper side of the base. V. villosa and V. cracca have more numerous leaflets (16-24). V. villosa, as suggested by its name, has notably villous stems. Further, the calyx is irregular, and the corolla is usually violet with a smaller standard petal (1.2-2cm long). The legume produced by V. villosa is much shorter than in V. sativa: only up to 3cm long. The corolla of V. americana is bluish-purple, and the legume is shorter (2.5-3.5cm long). V. cracca has entire stipules and blue, densely clustered flowers. V. faba only grows to 20cm in height, it does not have tendrils (not a climber), and the leaflets are less numerous (4-6) and longer (5-10cm long). Lathyrus spp. are generally similar to Vicia. The flowers of Lathyrus spp. can be differentiated by mostly free wings, which are adherent to the keel petals in Vicia spp., and the widened, flattish style with hairs along the inner side, in comparison to the filiform style with apical hairs found in Vicia flowers. Without flowers, species of Lathyrus can usually be distinguished from Vicia by the size and shape of the stipules. In the genus 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 (5,6,7,16). 

Other 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), Colutea (1), Crotalaria (1), Cytisus (1), Dalea (2), Desmanthus (1), Desmodium (12), Galega (1), Gleditsia (2), 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 (3), Securigera (1), Senna (2), Strophostyles (1), Tephrosia (1), Trifolium (10), Vicia (9), Vigna (1), and Wisteria (2) (source 3).

Ethnobotanical Uses: No medicinal uses for V. sativa were found in the literature, but the leaves are edible and can be made into tea, cooked, or consumed along with the young legumes. V. sativa seeds may be dried, ground, and ingested as a protein supplement (15), however, the seeds are known to contain toxic compounds, thus their ingestion is not recommended (18).

FABAViciasativaMAPPhylogenetic Information: The genus Vicia is a member of the subfamily 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 (1).

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above: V. sativa has very high economic importance as green manure and forage (18). It can also be cultivated alongside other crops to increase soil fertility, as V. sativa has a symbiotic relationship with nodule-forming bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen to a form that can be used by plants (15). V. sativa is able to hybridize with other Vicia species (17). 

Literature and websites used:

  1. Stevens, P.F. Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 12 July 2012.
  2. Missouri Botanical Garden. 26 Mar 2012 <>
  3. Michigan Flora Online. A.A. Reznicek, E.G. Voss, & B.S. Walters. February 2011. University of Michigan. Web. 3-26-2012.
  4. Brown, R.W. 1956. Composition of Scientific Words. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  5. Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th ed. New York: American Book Company.
  6. Gleason, H.A. 1963. Illustrated Flora of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, Volume 2. New York, NY: Hafner Publishing Company, Inc.
  7. Radford, A.E., H.E. Ahles, & C.R. Bell 1968. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
  8. USDA, NRCS. 2012. The PLANTS Database (, 03/26/2012). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.
  9. Biodiversity occurrence data (Accessed through GBIF Data Portal,, 03/05/2012)
  10. Gleason, H.A. & A. Cronquist 1963. Manual of Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.
  11. Garrison, W.J., G.L. Miller, & R. Raspet 2000. Ballistic seed projection in two herbaceous species. American Journal of Botany 87: 1257-1264.
  12. Perrino, P., M. Yarwood, P. Hanelt, & G.B. Polignano 1983. Variation of seed characters in selected Vicia species. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 32(2): 103-122.
  13. Grozdanic, S. 1970. Flower visits of insects to some species of Vicia (Leguminosae). Journal Zbornik Matice Srpske 38: 83-90.
  14. Miller, J.H. & K.V. Miller 2005. Forest plants of the Southeast and their wildlife uses. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.
  15. Plants For A Future, 1996-2010. Vicia grandiflora kitaibeliana.
  16. Voss, E.G. 1985. Michigan Flora Part II: Dicots. Ann Arbor, MI: Cranbrook Institute of Science.
  17. Gunn, C.E. 1979. Genus Vicia with notes about tribe Vicieae (Fabaceae) in Mexico and Central America. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Technical Bulletin No. 1601,41 pp.
  18. Enneking, D. 1994. The toxicity of Vicia species and their utilization as grain legumes. Ph.D. (Ag.Sc.) thesis, University of Adelaide.
  19.  Bao, B. & N.J. Turland 2010.Flora of China, Vol. 10.

Image Credits (all used with permission):
1) Image of habit courtesy of Luigi Rignanese.
2) Image of stipules courtesy of Jouko Lehmuskallio,
3) Image of leaf courtesy of Jouko Lehmuskallio,
4) Image of flowers courtesy of Joaquim Alves Gaspar, licensed under Available online at:
5) Image of fruit courtesy of Pedro Tenorio-Lezama,;
6) Image of seeds courtesy of Steve Hurst
7) Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.

Primary Authors: Cristine V. Santanna with revisions and editing by John Bradtke, Jenna Dorey, 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”