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What is a Butterfly Pea?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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A butterfly pea is a climbing vine in the genus Clitoria. These plants produce vividly colored shell-shaped flowers year round. Native to the tropics, butterfly peas can be cultivated as perennials in other tropical regions or in greenhouses, and may be grown as annuals in cooler regions with warm summers. Nurseries and garden supply stores sometimes stock seedlings or seeds for gardeners and gardeners can also obtain butterfly peas through trade with people who are willing to exchange plants, seeds, and cuttings.

This member of the pea family can have a leggy growth habit if allowed to grow interrupted. When the vines are regularly pinched, butterfly peas become more bushy. Gardeners may use trellises and stakes to stabilize the plant while it grows, and can utilize pruning and pinching to control the shape and size. These plants grow well as perennials in USDA zones 10 and 11; two popular species for gardeners are C. ternatea and C. mariana.

The leaves of the butterfly pea are dark green and roughly oval in shape. The flowers are often blue but can be pink, lavender, and other colors. In tropical climates, butterfly peas produce flowers year round and the flowers can become quite densely packed. In cooler regions, the flowers will be produced in the summer months and the vine will die back in the fall or winter. Sometimes butterfly peas can overwinter in temperate climates, and in other cases the weather gets too cold and the vines die off.

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Rich, moist soil is needed for a butterfly pea to thrive. If the soil condition is poor, organic material can be worked in to make it more nutritious and help it retain moisture. Once the plants are well established, they can sometimes tolerate low water conditions, especially if they are grown in partial shade. Butterfly pea plants growing in full sun may need some protection from the heat of the day in extremely warm and dry climates.

These plants pair well with other vividly colored tropical vines, shrubs, and trees. They can be trained to grow over walls and fences or grown as standalone shrubs, depending on a gardener's landscaping design preferences. In addition to being ornamental, some butterfly peas are also edible. The pods can be eaten while soft and butterfly pea flowers are a delicacy in some regions of the world, where they are used to dye food in addition to being eaten in salads and other dishes.

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