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Lathyrus sativus (grass pea)

Grass pea is a controversial crop. It is a lifesaver in times of famine but is toxic if consumed as a major part of the diet over an extended period of time.
Grass pea, Lathyrus sativus, in flower

Lathyrus sativusin flower (Photo: Nancy J. Ondra)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Lathyrus sativus L.

Common name: 

grass pea, chickling pea, chickling vetch, white pea (English); gesse, gesse blanche, gesse commune, pois carré, lentille d’Espagne (French); chícharo, chícharo comun, sincho (Portuguese).

Conservation status: 

Widespread in cultivation.

Habitat: 

Grasspea grows well in areas with an average annual rainfall of 400–650 mm/year and an average temperature of 10–25°C.

Key Uses: 

Food, fodder, hay, green manure, medicinal.

Known hazards: 

The crop is harmless to humans in small quantities. However, eating it as a major part of the diet over an extended period can cause permanent paralysis below the knees in adults and brain damage in children, a disorder known as lathyrism.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Rosanae
Order: 
Fabales
Family: 
Leguminosae/Fabaceae - Papilionoideae
Genus: Lathyrus

About this species 

Lathyrus sativus is a crop that is considered to be both a saviour and a destroyer. In times of famine, it is often the only alternative to starvation. It can withstand extreme environments, from drought to flooding.

The crop is harmless to humans in small quantities, but eating it as a major part of the diet over a three month period can cause permanent paralysis below the knees in adults and brain damage in children, a disorder known as lathyrism. The culprit is a potent neurotoxin called ODAP (β-N-Oxalyl-L-α,β-diaminopropionic acid) which is responsible for the drought and waterlogging tolerance of grass pea but, if taken in large enough quantities, brings on the neurological disorder.

Grass pea is easy to cultivate, and is tasty and high in nutritious protein, making it a popular crop in south west Asia and the eastern Horn of Africa where it is also grown to feed livestock. As in many members of the legume family (Leguminosae), grasspea is able to fix nitrogen from the air through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria housed in root nodules, which means that growing it keeps the soil healthy and well fertilised.

Genus: 
Lathyrus

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