Bean Family

Updated by Marc Williams                 marc@botanyeveryday.com                           May, 2018

Fabaceae / Bean Family / Fabales

A link to a photo album of members of the Fabaceae can be seen a Thomas Elpel’s site below


The Bean family is very important in that most members aid in fixing nitrogen in the soil with the partnership of special bacteria that live in their roots. Nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient. Therefore, many members of this family are often used as cover crops to aid soil fertility (Clark, 2007). This ability is missing in several early diverging representatives (Judd, Campbell, Kellog, Stevens, & Donahue, 2008).


The Fabaceae is the third biggest family in the world. It is one of the few families where it is still technically accurate to use its old scientific name (Leguminosae). The family is so big and diverse that it is often split into three sub-familes or families in their own right including Mimosoideae/Mimosaceae, Caesalpinioideae/Caesalpiniaceae, Papilionoideae/Papilionaceae (Heywood, Brummitt, Culham, & Seberg, 2007; Judd et al., 2008).. However most of the literature seems to favor the sub-family scheme (Heywood et al., 2007; Judd et al., 2008; Spears, 2006). Many tribes have historically been delineated as demonstrated by Elpel (2004, pp. 108-111). However even more tribes including 4 in the Mimosa subfamily (Mimosoideae) and 4 in the Bird-of-Paradise Tree subfamily (Caesalpiniodeae) and up to 28 tribes in the Pea subfamily (Papilionideae) are now accepted (Heywood et al., 2007). Frank Cook’s common names for the Caesalpinioideae included Senna and Flamboyant according to his copy of Botany in a Day (Elpel & Cook, 2006, p. 107).


The Bean family is also one of the chief sources of protein for vegetarians and people in the developing world. Beans (Phaseolus spp.) are native to Latin America (Smith, 1998). Peas (Pisum sativum), Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) and Lentils (Lens culinaris) are all plants from Eurasia that have been sources of protein for people and animal forage since ancient times. Red bud (Cercis canadensis) Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and Wisteria (Wisteria spp.) flowers are choice edibles from the Southeast U.S. (Brill, 2010; Couplan, 1998). Red clover leaves and flowers (Trifolium pratense) are good for medicinal tea in moderation (Duke & Foster, 1999). Rooibos (Aspalanthus linearis) is a plant newly popular in the West that hails from South Africa (Van Wyk, 2005). Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) is a major food flavoring of the tropics.


Many amazing medicines come from the Bean family. A few major ones include… Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous), Senna (Cassia spp.), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.) Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius), Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.), Tolu balsam (Myroxylon balsamum), Spiny restharrow (Ononis spinosa) Jamaica Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) Japanese Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) Cancer Bush (Sutherlandia frutescens) Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) (Van Wyk & Wink, 2004).


A large amount of plants in this family are toxic. Members should never be sampled without positive identification and reliable information as to use and preparation. Alkaloidal convulsant posion containing genera include Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus), Scholar Tree (Sophora), Golden Chain tree (Laburnum) and Indigo (Baptisia) (Nelson, Shih, & Balick, 2007). Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and Rattlebox (Sesbania spp.) contain saponins (Kingsbury, 1964). Triterpine and steroidal saponins may occur in the Fabaceae in general (Wink & Van Wyk, 2008). Sesbania and Crotalaria contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids (Nelson et al., 2007). Vetch (Vicia spp.) and Clover (Trifolium  spp.) can cause photosensitivity through their effect on the liver (Kingsbury, 1964). Some people are allergic to members of the Fabaceae including soybeans (Glycine max). Aflotoxin is a toxic fungus that can occur on Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) and other nuts. Black Locust (Robinia psuedoacacia) contains a toxalbumin (Nelson et al., 2007). Wisteria spp. contains wistarine a gylcocide (Nelson et al., 2007). Other potentially toxic members include Locoweeds (Astragalus spp.), Senna (Cassia), Sweet peas (Lathyrus spp.) and Lupines (Lupinus spp.).


Many plants in the Fabaceae provide forage for bees including Red Bud (Cercis canadensis), Clover (Trifolium  spp.), Sweet Clovers (Melilotus spp.), Vetch (Vicia spp.) Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Alsike Clover (Trifolium hybridum), Bird’s foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and False Indigo (Amorpha spp.) (Lovell, 1977).  Lupines yield pollen but have no nectar (Lovell, 1977). Various members of the Fabaceae are also known for their coevolutionary relationship with ants (Judd et al., 2008).

The Fabaceae is a major family for butterflies but not moths. In general the family hosts the Northern Cloudywing (Thorybes pylades), and Southern Cloudywing (Thorybes bathyllus) butterflies (Tallamy, 2009).

Below is a table comprised of information from Doug Tallamy (2009) in his incredible book Bringing Nature Home.


Host Plant

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

American Vetch (Vicia americana), Bushclovers (Lespedeza) and Tick Trefoils (Desmodium spp.)


The Hoary Edge Butterfly (Achalarus lyciades)

False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), Hairy Bushclover (Lespedeza hirta), Tick trefoils (Desmodium spp.)


The Silver-Spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), Locust (Robinia) and other legumes


The Wild Indigo Duskywing (Erynnis babtisiae)

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) and Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)


The Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)

Buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum)


Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)

Fabaceae in general Tick Trefoil (Desmodium spp.) in particular


Henry’s Elfin (Callophrys henrici)

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)


Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) attracts a wide range of butterflies including Sulphurs and Swallowtails (Lewis, 1995).

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens) attracts Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Frittilaries, Sulphurs, Blues and Skippers (Lewis, 1995).

Deerweed (Lotus scoparius) is listed as one of the best butterfly plants of the West! It attracts several species of Whites, Blues, Hairstreaks, Painted Lady and Skippers while also being a larval host to several species (Lewis, 1995).

Lupines (Lupinus spp.) are host for various blue butterflies. Sundial Lupine (Lupinus perennis) is the only larval host for the rare Karner Blue(Lewis, 1995).


A number of Bean family members are also known for their invasiveness (Miller, Chambliss, & Bargeron, 2006) as can be seen in the chart below.

Bird’s foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius)

Black Medick (Medicago lupilina)

Sericea Lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata)

Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)

Shrubby Lespedeza (Lespedeza bicolor)

Crown Vetch (Securigera varia)

Sicklepod (Senna obtusifolia)

Japanese Clover (Kummerowia striata)

Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin)

Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda)

Thunberg’s Lespedeza (Lespedeza thunbergii)

Korean Clover, (Kummerowia stipulacea)

Vetch (Vicia sativa)

Kudzu (Pueraria montana)

Yellow Sweetclover (Melilotus officianalis)


Clovers are particularly common in cultivated environments. The special fruits, known as loments, of Tick Trefoil (Desmodium spp.) are starting to stick to the pants of woods goers in Appalachia in the Fall.


i have taken note from various sources of thirty seven species from the Fabaceae that have been used in various parts of the world as dye plants (Bliss, 1993; Buchanan, 1995; Fern, 2008; A. Krochmal & C. Krochmal, 1974; Moerman, 1998). Appalachian native and naturalized genera include Indigo (Baptisia australis) Dyer’s indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) and Broom (Cytisus scoparius).

Other Crafts:

The fruit from several members of the bean family including Coral bean (Erythrina spp.) and Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) are ornamental and are used to make jewelry. Often members from this family are also used as beautiful trees in the landscape incuding Red Bud (Cercis spp.), Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), Scholar Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum syn Sophora japonica), Yellowood (Cladrastis kentukea), Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and various flowering vines.

Literature Cited

Bliss, A. (1993). North American Dye Plants. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.

Brill, W. S. (2010). The Wild Vegan Cookbook: A Forager’s Culinary Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Foods. Harvard Common Press.

Buchanan, R. (1995). A Dyer’s Garden : From Plant to Pot: Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.

Clark, A. (2007). Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Sustainable Agriculture Network handbook series ;; bk. 9; College Park, MD: SARE, (2010 printing).

Couplan, F. (1998). The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America. New Canaan, CT: Keats Pub.

Duke, J. A., & Foster, S. (1999). A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides) (1st ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Elpel, T. J. (2004). Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification (5th ed.). Pony, MT: HOPS Press.

Elpel, T. J., & Cook, F. (2006). Botany in a Day: The Patterns method of Plant Identification (Frank Cook personal copy.). Pony, MT: HOPS Press.

Fern, K. (2008). Plants for a future - 7300 useful plants database. Plants For a  Future. Retrieved April 23, 2009, from http://www.pfaf.org/index.php

Heywood, V. H., Brummitt, R. K., Culham, A., & Seberg, O. (2007). Flowering Plant Families of the World (Revised.). Buffalo, NY; Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly Books.

Judd, W. S., Campbell, C. S., Kellog, E. A., Stevens, P. F., & Donahue, M. J. (2008). Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach (3rd ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Krochmal, A., & Krochmal, C. (1974). The Complete Illustrated Book of Dyes from Natural Sources. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Lewis, A. (Ed.). (1995). Butterfly Gardens. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Lovell, H. B. (1977). Honey Plants. (L. R. Goltz, Ed.) (Rev ed.). Medina, OH: Gleanings in Bee Culture.

Miller, J. H., Chambliss, E. B., & Bargeron, C. (2006, January). Invasive Plants of the Thirteen Southern States. Invasive and Exotic Species of North America. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://www.invasive.org/south/seweeds.cfm

Moerman, D. E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany (1st ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press, Incorporated.

Nelson, L. S., Shih, R. D., & Balick, M. J. (2007). Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.

Smith, B. D. (1998). The Emergence of Agriculture. New York: Scientific American Library.

Spears, P. (2006). A Tour of the Flowering Plants: Based on the Classification System of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group. St. Louis, MO: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

Tallamy, D. (2009). Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Updated Ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Wink, M., & Van Wyk, B.-E. (2008). Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World (1st ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Van Wyk, B.-E. (2005). Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Van Wyk, B.-E., & Wink, M. (2004). Medicinal Plants of the World: An Illustrated Scientific Guide to Important Medicinal Plants and Their Uses. Portland, OR: Timber Press.


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