This cheerful, long-blooming annual (or short-lived perennial) is prized for its beauty, carefree lifestyle, and ability to attract a wide variety of wildlife. The bright yellow, one-inch flowers that line the slender stems have rounded, irregularly shaped petals with red smudges and a flurry of dark red stamens. Blooming from July to September in full or part sun, this plant isn't picky about soil type as long as it is well drained. The erect stems grow 1 to 3 feet tall, tending to sprawl if they reach their tallest height. The mimosa-like foliage is said to fold inward when touched, giving it the common name “sensitive plant.” In fall, the narrow seedpods change from green to maroon and become so corkscrewed that they explode, flinging seeds everywhere. For this reason, partridge pea is best kept out of formal gardens or any area you don’t want to be constantly weeding out seedlings. However, as a member of the nitrogen-fixing legume family, it’s a great plant for improving soils, and it’s sometimes used to prevent erosion and help stabilize stream banks.
When planted en masse, partridge pea attracts a blizzard of bees. Although the flowers don’t produce nectar, they do provide plenty of pollen. The bees have to work for their powdery reward—some bees hold onto the flowers and vibrate their wing muscles to shake pollen out of the anther, while other bees use a “milking” technique to stroke the pollen out. Partridge pea has small, cup-like structures on its stems known as "extrafloral nectaries" that provide small amounts of nectar for predatory insects. These predators will eat the nectar and any plant-eating insects, including caterpillars. An example of one of these plant protectors is the velvet ant, which is actually a hairy, wingless wasp. Bumble and honey bees also spend a good amount of their time harvesting this nectar, as do some butterflies. In fact, the USDA recommends this plant for honey production.
Native habitats include newly disturbed soils, open woodlands, prairies, river banks, and savannas. It’s an excellent choice for meadows, woodland borders, or naturalized areas.
Grows 1-3’ tall and 1 ½’ wide.
Grows in sun or part shade.
Prefers medium-to-dry, sandy, partially acidic soils, but adapts well to clay, loam, chalky, and even poor soils as long as they are well drained. Tolerates drought.
Flowers are yellow with 5 rounded petals, up to 10 red stamens, and purple anthers. Pods are 1-2” long and contain numerous seeds.
Compound leaves are medium to yellowish green with pinnately compound leaves that have up to 20 linear leaflets. Round, hairless stalks with some branching turn from light green to reddish brown as they mature. The plant has a tap root up to 12” long.
Host plant for 7 species of lepidoptera larvae in central Ohio, including the Io moth, gray hairstreak butterfly and 4 specialists that can only feed on plants in the Chamaecrista genus. Honey, bumble, and other long-tongued bees are the primary pollinators. The nectaries attract a different group of insects, including halictid bees, wasps, flies, and ants. Colonies of this plant provide valuable cover for ground-nesting birds. The seeds are an important winter food source for small mammals, songbirds; turkey, quail, grouse and other game birds.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Though the plant is toxic, Native Americans used decoctions for nausea and fainting. A root medicine was used to keep people awake.
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