Beach pea in bloom
Beach pea in bloom

Beach-pea, Lathyrus japonicus

Family: Fabaceae, the Pea Family

Description: Native perennial vine. Pinnately compound leaves, simple tendrils, arrow-shaped stipules

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Sea beaches

Plant Parts Used: Legumes

Food: Edible, with caution

There is conflicting information about the edibility of beach-pea. Both Sue and Ray eat it: Sue says at the “sweet pea stage” and at the dried stage she cooks it like a regular pea. Ray also uses it for food or tea. John said it is edible, but cooked with caution because it can be poisonous.

However, Terry-Anya wrote in an email to me: “Lathyrus japonicus, which everyone knows as Beach Pea, used to be considered an edible but is now known to contain toxins that build up in the body and result in a condition called lathyrism that paralyzes the lower limbs, withers the buttocks, and can be fatal. Because this usually takes years to occur, I suppose a connection was not noticed between the symptoms and eating Beach Peas.” These results may come from prolonged, excessive consumption of beach pea and may also depend on individual susceptibility. Despite these warnings, I spoke to many people who still eat this plant occasionally.

Caution: The leaves of plants in this genus can be toxic to humans and livestock if eaten in quantity. The toxicity in the seeds (the “peas”) is also only caused when consumed in quantity. The same toxins are found in the common garden sweetpea, Lathyrus odoratus, so the toxic effects can also appear as a result of excessive consumption of domesticated peas as well.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.

References:

  • Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
  • Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.
  • Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.
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