What is a Fabaceae?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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The Fabaceae family consists mostly of flowering legume and pea plants. Fabaceae is considered the third-largest flowering plant family, after Asteraceae, the aster family, and Orchidaceae, the orchid family. The flowering plant family Fabaceae includes about 18,000 species and 400 genera of flowering, leguminous plants. Members of this plant family include several commonly cultivated plants. Trees, herbs, vines, and shrubs belonging to this plant family are native to all regions of the world.

Members of the plant family Fabaceae typically produce leguminous fruit and this trait is considered one of the family's defining characteristics. Species from this plant family can be found around the globe. Woody, shrub-like or tree-like species are generally indigenous to warmer, more tropical areas, while herbaceous species usually grow in cooler temperate climates. Some members of the Fabaceae family are commonly cultivated, and considered to be of great economic importance. The soybean, or Glycine max; the peanut, or Arachis hypogaea; the garden pea, or Pisum sativum; and alfalfa, or Medicago sativa are among these economically important species.


Some members of the Fabaceae family produce mostly pea-like blossoms, like members of the sub-family Papilionoideae. The peanut is a member of this sub-family, as is the sweet pea and the black locust. Members of the sub-family Caesalpinioideae typically produce bilateral blossoms with five separate petals. Members of this sub-family include the tamarind, the Jerusalem thorn and the carob. Members of the sub-family Mimosoideae generally produce large blooms that grow in spikes or produce flower-heads of multiple blooms, such as the powder puff, or the mesquite.

Many plants in the Fabaceae family may be familiar as lawn weeds. Trifolium repens, commonly known as white clover, is one of these. Desmodium trifolium, or tick clover, is another. Many members of the family are sometimes used as livestock fodder in their countries of origin, such as the butterfly pea, or Clitoria ternatea. The wood of the Burmese rosewood, or Pterocarpus indicus, is considered valuable by carpenters and cabinet-makers. Another member of this plant family, Indigofera suffruticosa, or West Indian indigo, has been historically used as a source of blue dye.

The one characteristic that almost all members of this family of flowering plants have in common is the production of leguminous fruits. Almost all of these plants produce seed-filled pods. The peanut is probably the only member of this family whose pods develop beneath the soil.


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