It comes when it’s needed and gracefully makes room when its job is done, asking for little and enriching nearly everything with which it comes into contact, from soils to bees and ants and butterflies, deer and birds, and, of course, our yard.
The Partridge Pea has it all. The ferny, mimosa-like foliage of this member of the Pea family (Fabaceae) is a beautiful backdrop for the cheery yellow flowers that attract hordes of pollinators,
its seeds are a favorite food for many birds, including bobwhite quail and endangered prairie chickens, it provides cover for wildlife, is a pioneer plant in poor and disturbed areas, improving soils as a nitrogen fixer, and it quietly gives way as more species colonize the areas that Partridge Pea has improved.
What’s not to love? Well, maybe that this annual will reseed itself vigorously and establish thickets, which may put off some small-yard gardeners, but we have had it for years and it seems easy to control, so we forgive it that. That is one of the features that also makes it useful for erosion control and bank stabilization. It establishes easily where it’s needed and maintains itself without much, or any, help.
In human circles, this plant has been used to ease sore throats, increase endurance, treat malaria and other tropical fevers, and relieve nausea, among other things. Please note, however, that Partridge Pea can be toxic for both people and livestock if taken in sufficient quantity. It has cathartic qualities and can cause bodily distress and even death. If anyone wants to experiment with it, do your homework and use caution. (Good advice for life, too, by the way.)
Now the details: Partridge Pea grows widely in the Midwest, eastern and southern United States in USDA hardiness zones 3-9. Growing up to two feet tall, it has compound alternate leaves with up to 20 leaflets, which can resemble the leaves of the Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) or Wild Senna (Senna marilandica—which was once lumped with Partridge Pea in the genus Cassia).
The leaves are somewhat sensitive to touch and will start to close when brushed against. The flowers are bright yellow, appear near the leaf axils and are a bit unusual in that they contain no nectar. That commodity is provided by glands known as nectaries on the petioles of the leaves. (One author surmised that they play no role in reproduction, and “Apparently, they are free lunch-counters, kept open out of pure charity”. Andee Naccarato of the NaplesBotanical Garden, not so convinced of floral charity, suggested that ants attracted to the nectar collect the eggs and caterpillars of sulfur butterflies that would otherwise munch on the foliage.)
In autumn the plant develops green pea-like pods about two inches long containing a row of little flat seeds relished by many birds, including the aforementioned quail (hence, of course, “partridge pea”). The pods become brown and brittle as they age.
Partridge Pea is said to prefer sandy to sandy loam soils with good drainage and plenty of sun, but it is notoriously unfussy. It is found in fields, disturbed areas, glades commonly along roadsides and railroad tracks, and abandoned fields. This is truly one species you can almost plant and forget, except for maybe controlling its spread, where necessary. It doesn’t transplant well, like many plants with long taproots, but the plus side is the drought resistance that gives it. It was one of the plants that soldiered right on through the famous drought of a couple years back here in Missouri. Seeds are readily available from native plant sources and from the wild (check regulations), or just stop on by our house in late fall and we’ll fix you up.
Wherever you get your seeds from, your local insects will thank you. In our yard, Partridge Pea is one of those plants that literally buzzes with activity during its weeks-long blooming period. It is pollinated primarily by long-tongued bees, although we see many other types of insects hanging around the flowers, while nectar-feeders tend to congregate around the nectaries (it is considered an important honey plant). One of the frequent visitors to this plant is the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, mentioned above, which lays eggs on it and whose caterpillars feed on the foliage and flowers of it and its relatives. It is said that you can tell by the color of the caterpillar whether it has been feeding mostly on the yellow flowers or the green foliage. Maybe so. See below, although these caterpillars are actually on a neighboring Wild Senna.
Partridge Pea improves soils, feeds birds, pollinators and other wildlife, needs little to no maintenance, and is a looker to boot. This one’s a keeper in any native plant landscape.