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Partridge Pea: Providing Food, Cover, Erosion Control, and Soil Nutrients

Partridge pea

Partridge pea

With tiny leaflets and bright yellow flowers with a red center, this native plant improves soil quality, provides food for pollinators and birds, and is a host plant for the caterpillars of several butterflies. And even more exciting – it has an interesting reaction to being touched.

If you want to attract butterflies using a low-maintenance plant, this is the plant to add to your butterfly garden.

Food For Pollinators

The bright yellow flowers of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) produce nectar that is fed upon by ants, bees, wasps, flies, and even velvet ants. The flowers bloom in summer and persist through early fall.

Food and Cover for Birds & Mammals

Partridge pea flowers

Partridge pea flowers

True to its name, partridge pea produces a tiny seedpod that resembles a pea pod. The seeds in these pods are food for birds such as bobwhite quail, mallards, and songbirds.

Small mammals also eat the seedpods of partridge pea and deer will browse on the foliage in the summer and early fall. However, when eaten in large quantities, partridge pea can be toxic to livestock.

Partridge pea plants often grow in bunches and form a thicket of plants. These thickets provide a place to hide, rest, shelter, and nest for small mammals, waterfowl, songbirds, and quail.

Soil Improvements

Because partridge pea is a legume, its roots have small nodules that contain nitrogen-fixing rhizobia bacteria. These bacteria take nitrogen from the air and transform it into a form that the plant is able to use. The plant and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria form a symbiotic relationship – the plant receives nitrogen in a form that it can use, which helps it to grow, and the bacteria get energy and nutrients from the plant.

During the nitrogen fixation process, some of the nitrogen may leak in to the soil where other plants may use it. When the plant dies, the nitrogen is absorbed into the soil and made available for other plants.

Butterfly Host Plant

There are several butterflies that lay eggs on partridge pea. Their caterpillars will feed on the plant prior to metamorphosing into butterflies. The Cloudless Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak, Sleepy Orange, Ceraunas Blue, and Little Yellow caterpillars all feed on partridge pea.

Erosion Control

Since partridge pea colonizes soil quickly, it is sometimes used for erosion control along roadsides or streams.

Response to Being Touched

Partridge pea apparently doesn’t like to be touched! If you brush against the leaves, they will slowly close as if it is offended at being touched. It isn’t clear why the plant has this reaction, but one hypothesis is that it is a defense used against herbivores. If the leaves close up, an herbivore might be less likely to eat it.

Learn more

Check out the USDA plant guide for Partridge Pea for more information about this plant.

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