FABACEAE (Legume) - Wildflowers of the Escambia


Summer Farewell (Dalea pinnata)

Red Rattlebox Sesbania (Sesbania punicea)

Like so many of the native plants of the Coastal Plain we have more than our share of one family and not enough of the other. Legume (bean) is no exception. They range from the very small herbs to giant trees; wild and domestic. Everything out there serves a useful purpose even if it's no more than providing color in open woods and at roadsides. Some plants spend an entire life building up vital nutrients for others or building a "nest" for perpetuating its own kind. All legumes are food sources for something whether high or low on the food chain; all are rich in protein and minerals. One that is good for deer may be deadly to cattle and then safe for humans. However, it would be wrong for anyone to say what should be eaten and what should not for at some point normal instinct steers us away from the harmful. The primary intent will be to show the wonderful colors and form of blossoms; their diversity, and importance to the Escambia region. The Legume family is the largest family of plants on the Gulf Coast.

Simply because a plant bears a bean pod does not mean it's a legume. Some legumes bear fruit underground, such as Ground Nut, while its life begins and ends with a seed borne above ground. Others are growing wild in this country and considered wilderness plants while in Asia they are cultivated and harvested as food sources or for commercial products (Kudzu and Indigo).

Because legumes are so diverse no attempt will be made to group them in tribes or clans unless it will help to clarify how the plant fits into the scheme of things. Their range is widespread, as is the case with so many human clans; roses, orchids and sunflowers.

With this brief distraction let's take a look at this important family of plants. Surely many will be recognized. But if you the reader have some surprises or learn the name of something heretofore unknown, then this entire work will have been worth the effort.

Summer Farewell has compact, head-like spikes of small white flowers that appear much like the heads of an aster. In fact, the plant was originally classified as a member of the Sunflower family and given the name "Harrington's Aster." But with the advent of more scientific means of identification the chromosome count (DNA) proved it to be of the Legume family. The Harrington's Aster name is aptly applied to the plant for which it was originally intended. The three to seven leaflets of the add-pinnate leaves are filiform and glandular-dotted. Preferred habitat of this plant is sand hills and open sandy Coastal Plain woods. There are no known reports that the plant has found a habitat west of the Mississippi River, but it is known northeast to the Carolinas.

Red Rattlebox Sesbania, due to its errant nature, it easily develops various color combinations from orange to reddish-purple depending on soil and surrounding vegetation. This is a southern species known primarily in the lower half of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and of course most of Florida. Its preferred habitat is savannas, roadsides, ditches, waste sites and occasionally in flood zones. These habitats naturally suggest a widespread species, but many plants are lost (as nature intended) because seeds are swept away by rising waters. Without that built-in natural control system the countryside would be inundated with Red Rattlebox. Unlike the Chinese Tallow Tree (Popcorn) we have not created a habitat for Sesbania that allows it to invade every piece of open land.


Bristly Locust (Robinia hispida)
When examined closely this plant re-
sembles the Red Rattlebox Sesbania. It is often planted in the Midwest as an ornamental, and occasionally in the Southeast as a "cover up" plant where nothing else will grow. However, in the Escambia region folks are well aware that "Bristly" will easily send trailing roots to all parts of the yard and invade flower plots that should not be invaded. The new growth stems of the plant are littered with tiny bristles, thus the name, and it should not be handled bare-
handed. Its preferred habitat is road-
sides, waste sites and thin woods.

Sesbania (S. macrocarpa)
This "rattlebox" is an upright annual with alternate, pinnately compound leaves that have smaller leaflets along the side like a feather. Flowers appear in the leaf axil and may be all yellow or yellow speckled with purplish-brown or dark red; wings and keel are yellow. Flowering occurs from June into September in a preferred habitat of wet roadsides, ditches, fields, marshes, stream banks and river bars.

Butterfly Pea (Clitoria mariana)

Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum)

The Latin describes Butterfly Pea as "belonging to the sea; coastal." There are two variations residing in the Escambia region; mariana and virginianum. Major differences in the two exists for which an explanation is needed. (1) The flower petal of Spurred Butterfly Pea (banner) points downward (upside down); the Butterfly Pea banner is upright. (2) A spur is located at the back of Spurred and Butterfly is bare. (3) Spurred is round and Butterfly is oval. (4) The splotch of color at the blossom keel (the fused egg-shaped enclosure) is white on Spurred and purple on Butterfly.

These plants are commonly referred to as Cat Bells because the small seed pod rattles when dry. Flowering occurs from June to August in open woods, fields, dry soils and thickets.


Scruff Pea (Psoralea psoralioides)

Goat's Rue (Tephrosia virginiana)

The preferred habitat of Scurf Pea is fields, roadsides, prairies and waste sites. Flowers occur from May to July in spike-like racemes which flower is light to dark purple.

The preferred habitat of Goat's Rue is woods, rocky roadsides, glades and waste sites. Flowers occur from May to June in clusters. Color of banner varies from pink to yellow.

Goat's Rue is a perennial also known as Hoary Pea and Devil's Shoestring. While it has no attractive names to match its beauty in the wilderness, the names given might be suited because of its resillient root system. There is a story that goes, "When God divided the sheep and the goats, " says the Bible, Book of Matthew, he consiged the goats to the left saying, "Department from me ye cursed." From that one might surmise that He also placed this plant on His left as well and dared the goats to maul it -- they did and it was later fed to them as an aid to increase milk production. There is no known record to verify whether or not milk production was increased. What we do know is that the plant contains an insecticide and fish poison, rotenone. When this fact was known it was eradicated from grazing lands as the poison might be passed to humans through the milk and its byproducts. It's a distinctively silver-leaf plant. The roots are long and stringy, to which one of its names Devil's Shoestring refers.


(Zorina bracteata)

Bird's Foot Trefoil
(Lotus corniculatus)

Viperina and Bird's Foot Trefoil are difficult to separate in that both are presented on short standards directly from the ground and develop vines only if they have a host on which to climb. However, if Viperina finds no host it forms a ground-level mat and creates a ladder of its tendrils, one layer atop the other. If Bird's Foot finds no host it remains on a low and stiff standard and produces its fruit atop whatever grasses are available. Given a host plant; however, it sends out trailers and tendrils for support. Both plants are self-reliant and resourceful.

Flowers appear from early summer into autumn. Look for them in low damp places along streams or directly at seashore. While in no way related, aside from being in the same family of plants, Viperina and Trefoil have very similar habits and habitat preferences.


False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)
False Indigo is also known as Indigo Bush. This tall shrub forms thick colonies on stream banks; completely overlooked in autumn and winter be-
cause it's deciduous. The flowers are in long clusters; purple with orange-tipped stamens. When seen from a distance the flowers would seem to have been dusted with gold. The flower has only a single petal which wraps itself around the stamens and style. The plant was once cultivated as a garden ornamental and for making dye, but when other sources for dye were discovered it was allowed to escape, although it continues to be cultivated on a limited scale in the northeast. It fared well in the wild; was plentiful, and there was no need to retrieve it. Blooms occur in mid-April and persists through June. Habitat is alluvial soils, stream banks and moist thickets

Purple Vetch
(Lathyrus venosus)

White Vetch
(L. venosus)

Winter Vetch
(Vicia villosa)

Cow Vetch
(V. cracca)

There are numerous vetches in the Escambia region. Because they are so closely related it would be pointless to discuss each in detail. So, let one size fit all. The common denominator is that the vines are stringy, flowers are small, medium or large in each variety, and all form large arbors in open woods and at roadside. All need a host plant to support them and all send out curly tendrils to seek the host plant whether its a twig or a blade of grass. All share a common bloom cycle as well -- late spring to mid-summer.

The plants are widely cultivated for fodder and often escapes from cultivation to appear in both unexpected and expected places. All total, there exists some 20 varieties of vetch on the Coastal Plain, mostly climbing plants with compound leaves ending in tendrils. Many are used as cover crops. Regardless of content, these plants are excellent choices for use in soil erosion.


Dollar Leaf
(Rhynchosia reniformis)
Dollar Leaf is also known as Snout Bean. It's a small plant, barely more than six inches high thus one is apt to step on it before seeing the golden treasure beneath. When among tall grasses it is known to send up an arm to harvest sunlight. Only under such circumstances has it been known to compete for space. This plant likes to stay clear of taller objects, preferring rotting pine bark or forest leaf litter where its feet keep warm during frosty days. The plant is called Snout Bean because of its long bean pod. The scientific name Rhynchosia implies "nose" and Reniformis refers to the round, kidney-
like leaf. Flowers appear from May to September.
Two related species, which are difficult to distinguish are R. latifolia and R. minima. Latifolia has a stout, erect stem that has a tendency to zig-zag or arch and trail two to four feet. Minima is a twining perennial that may also trail for several feet; tiny flowers that appear as a raceme on a tall leafless stalk. Its leaves are tri-foliate (appears in sets of three).

Coral Bean (Erythrina herbacea)

Coral Bean is also known as Cardinal Spear and Coral Spear. As the name implies, it's a perennial herb, or in the warmer parts of its range it may be a shrub (central Florida). Its range is from Carolina to Texas but beyond Florida and Louisiana the plant is rare. Quite often the above-ground stems may survive over a number of winters, which has led some authorities to believe there are two distinct species. However, that theory is not sup-
ported by present data. Flowering occurs from April to June in hammocks, thickets and rich pine woods. The florets appear on a leafless stem, about two inches long and brilliant red; the flower banner is larger and folds over the smaller wings, which gives it the appearance of being a series of closed tubes. The fruit is a small bean pod containing a vermilion-colored seed, which often clings to the stem at the foot of the flower. Indian women used the seeds for making beads and other ornaments.

It is reported that the seeds are poisonous so attention should be given before putting any part of it in the mouth.


Wild Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens)

Wild Wisteria (W. frutescens)

Wild Wisteria is not a common road-
side plant as it prefers moist and un-
disturbed areas such as stream banks and low flatlands; thickets.

There are two native species of Wisteria; American (frutescens) and Kentucky (macrostachya). Neither of these strains is as showy or hardy as the popular garden species imported from Asia. Native wisterias are vigorous twining vines whose woody stems may grow to be several inches thick. The plant is often called Mile-A-Minute Plant, which name is also applied to Kudzu.

Although not given to invasiveness as is the domestic strain, it will cover considerable distances over a year's time if left undisturbed. Wild varieties are easily kept under control as animals browse its tender leaves and flavorful flower.

The major difference in imported versus native would be difficult to see at first sight, but look at the size and shape of the blossom cluster and note how compact is the flower "tag;" almost as broad as long. Then, imagine a cluster; long, slender and uncrowded, as well as possibly being a shade darker, that's the import.


Hairy Lupine/Lady Finger Lupine (Lupinus villosus, left. Smooth Lupine (L. diffusa), below.

These wild lupines have pea-like flowers in an upright, elongated cluster on an erect stem with spatula-like leaves. Flowering occurs from April to July.

These plants were once thought to deplete the mineral content of the soil, thus the genus name derived from the Latin Lupus (wolf). Actually, they enhance the soil fertility by fixing atmospheric nitrogens into a useful form. Lupines are perennial herbs that grow in dense clumps with a cluster of leaves at the base of the flowering stalk. The leaves are entire (no teeth and no lobes); hairy or smooth, which characteristic is easily seen above; hairy on the left and smooth on the right.

Crimson Clover
(Trifolium incarnatum)

Red Clover
(T. pratense)

White Creeping Clover
(T. repens)

Rabbit Foot Clover
(T. arvense)

Small Hop Clover
(T. agrarium)

Small-Headed Clover
(T. microcephalum)

There are numerous clover in the Escambia region, but the one most familiar is the Crimson Clover shown above. It is seen frequently on all roadsides whether Federal, State or County. Most are placed there to prevent soil erosion as well as provide some brilliant splotches of color to relieve the tedium of highway driving. Clover remain fresh throughout the day and night regardless of the intense summer heat known to the Coastal Plain. While clover plots are replanted each year all varieties will readily reseed themselves if left undisturbed. Some states, Mississippi is a good example, don't interfere with the natural cycle and allow it to return "volunteer" wherever it pleases. Alabama and Florida mows and turns the soil to rejuvenate and rotate planting for other roadside flowers. For whatever reason it is cultivated the splash of color; glowing red, blushing pink, summer gold or snowy white.

Small Headed Clover is an excellent forage plant for livestock because of its high protein content. But while a related species, Crown Vetch (Coronilla varia), is widely used to prevent soil erosion its seed is reported to be poisonous; however, birds do consume them. Chickens like to scratch around in it in search of the numerous insects attracted to the plant; ducks especially like to nuzzle around in search of food and turkeys have a special fondness for the succulent beans.

Except for Rabbit Foot Clover, all Escambia clover will have completed bloom cycles around the end of June; usually drying so to go dormant by end of July and to mature its seeds from July to August. These plants are annuals which may be seen throughout the spring months on virtually all roadsides. The small seeds and tender leaves are excellent food stuff for ground-nesting song and game birds.


Slender Bush Clover
(Lespedeza virginica)
This plant has an upright stem with small clusters of lavender pea-like flowers in the upper leaf axils. The clusters are extremely compact with leaf and flowers. These are of a large group where considerable hybridizing has resulted in many variations. There exists some 18 or more species within the Coastal Plain; a number within the Escambia region. This is a very useful plant for improving the fertility of dry sites; the seeds being important food stuff for bobwhite quail and other songbirds. Preferred habitat is dry open woods, thickets and clearings. Flowering occurs from July to September.

Beggar's Lice
(Desmodium lineatum)

Beggar's Lice has downy seeds which are nearly impos-
sible to brush away and sometimes a good thrashing in the washer won't dislodge these unwelcome hitch-hikers. They do no harm; only wanting to spread their seed to new territories without waiting for more conventional means. While the plant can reach heights of six feet or more the flowers are extremely small and delicate. In-
deed, the entire plant is delicate in nature. A favorite pollinator of Beggar's Lice is the honeybee.

Black Locust (also known as Yellow Locust) is a medium-
sized tree with an often crooked trunk and irregular upright branches. It grows best in sandy soils, on old fields and open woodlands. Locust is fairly widespread throughout North America but infrequent in the Escambia region. Black Locust blooms as early as April and stays around until June depending on climate. Beggar's Lice blooms from August through October.


Black Locust/Yellow Locust
(Robinia pseudo-acacia)
According to the Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Trees, Locust was used exten-
sively by Virginia Indians for making bows and ap-
parently cultivated the trees, which accounts for it being so widespread. Its history in this country dates back to early 1600 when the durable woods served as excellent timbers for colonial homes; corner posts and floor joists.

Showy Rattlebox
(Crotolaria spectabilis)

Showy Rattlebox is also known as Crotolaria. This plant has pea-like yellow flowers in elongated clusters near the tip of the flowering stem. Occasionally the stem may appear light purple. Flowering occurs from August to October in fields, at roadside, and in waste places. It is well represented in the Escambia region.

The rattling of the dry seeds in the pod accounts for both the common and the genus names, from the Greek crotalon (rattle). Farmers labor hard to prevent Crotolaria seeds from getting into their soya bean yield as the broker will knock down the price if seed is found in the grain. It could render an inferior flour when milled as it distorts the quality of the ground product. While the seeds are not poisonous to humans or livestock they might cause discomfort if too much is ingested.

There are four species of Crotolaria in the Escambia region; C. spectabilis, C. sagittalis, C. purshii and C. angulata. The variety seen here is the most widespread and the plant most often seen at roadside.

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