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Swainsona formosa (Sturt's desert pea)

Sturt's desert pea has striking, blood-red flowers with bulbous black centres, and is the South Australian floral emblem.
Red and black flowering heads of Swainsona formosa

Swainsona formosa

Species information

Scientific name: 

Swainsona formosa (G.Don) Joy Thomps.

Common name: 

Sturt's desert pea, Dampier’s clianthus

Conservation status: 

Not evaluated according to IUCN Red List criteria. Not considered to be at risk in the wild.


Arid woodland, open plains.

Key Uses: 

Floral emblem of South Australia, cultivated as an ornamental, seeds eaten by Australian Aborigines.

Known hazards: 

Although several species of Swainsona are toxic to livestock, S. formosa is reported to be grazed sparingly with no ill-effects.


Leguminosae/Fabaceae - Papilionoideae
Genus: Swainsona

About this species

Sturt's desert pea was found in 1699 by the English explorer William Dampier (1652-1715) in the dry sandy islands of Dampier’s Archipelago, north-west Australia. The English botanist Allan Cunningham collected it in the same locality in 1818. Specimens from around that area were also collected by Benjamin Bynoe, the surgeon on the voyage of HMS Beagle.

The striking and unusual flowers have uniform crimson petals, broken up by a glossy purple-black disc on the standard petals. The common name honours the English explorer Charles Sturt, who recorded seeing large quantities of the flowers whilst exploring central Australia in 1844. The name Swainsona formosa was published by Joy Thompson in 1990, after studies showed that its similarity with Clianthus puniceus (lobster claw from New Zealand) was superficial, the flowers of both species being adapted for pollination by birds. The generic name Swainsona honours the English botanist Isaac Swainson (1746-1812), who was famous for his botanic garden at Twickenham.


Clianthus dampieri, Clianthus formosus, Clianthus speciosus, Willdampia formosa


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