Clitoria ternatea L.
(Fabaceae – the pea family)
subfamily: Faboideae – the bean subfamily
common name: Butterfly Pea
Clitoria is derived from the Greek κλειτορις (kleitoris), the clitoris. The flower was first described and named for the clitoris in 1678 by the German-born botanist Georg Eberhard Rumpf (1628–1702). Many vernacular names of the flower in various languages are similarly based on references to the female sexual organs. There have been controversies over the years regarding the lack of good taste in thus naming the genus, but less-explicit alternatives have never caught on, and the name Clitoria survives. Ternatea is named for Ternate, a place in Indonesia.
It is thought that this plant came originally from Asia. It is a twining plant with stems up to 5 m long. The leaves have 5–9 elliptical-shaped leaflets. There is usually one leaf per axil. The plant blooms throughout the year, the flowers being solitary, bright deep blue with light yellow markings, about 4 cm long and 3 cm wide. The flowers are presented ‘upside-down’, the keel petal appearing on the top rather than on the underside. There are some varieties that bear white flowers.
The fruits are 5–7 cm long, flat pods with up to 10 seeds in each pod. They are edible when young and tender. The plant may be propagated from seed or from cuttings. It does well in hanging baskets, liking partial shade – it does not like the hot afternoon sun. There is quite a colony of these plants on the seaward side of the lawns on the Picnic Bay Mall, where they obviously enjoy being watered by the sprinkler system.
The Butterfly Pea, as its name suggests, attracts butterflies. The leaves and seeds are good stock feed, and, as indicated above, the pods are sometimes eaten by humans, especially in the Philippines. The roots of the plant are used in the Ayurveda system of Indian medicine for the treatment of a wide range of diseases and conditions. It is regarded as useful as a laxative and a diuretic, as a brain tonic, in the treatment of eye diseases, whooping cough, tubercular glands, elephantiasis, headaches, various body pains, biliousness and ulcers, as an antidepressant and an anticonvulsant, and in the treatment of stress. The roots of the white-flowered varieties are used to treat goitre.
In South-east Asia the flowers are used as a food colorant, and also, in Thailand, a syrupy drink called nam dok anchan is made from them.
Photographs © Donald Simpson, taken on the Picnic Bay foreshore 2009-2012