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The Heath Pea (Lathyrus linifolius)

Last week Mark Goff, an alert reader with a deep knowledge of botany and herblore, informed me of a mistake in my column concerning the bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). Apparently a second plant goes by this common name and I accidentally reported on it as though it was Vicia ervilia. This second bitter vetch is Lathyrus linifolius, aka the “heath pea” (which is the name I’m going to use for it here on out). I have edited my earlier article and purged it of information and photos of the heath pea. Suffice to say, Vicia ervilia is indeed the Neolithic founder crop known for its bitterness. Please note that the seeds of Vicia ervilia are edible only if prepared properly (not that I imagine anyone running out to feast on the ancient legume). Vicia ervilia must be blanched and the water must be then be dumped out over and over again and again to ensure that the final dish is not toxic.

The heath pea (Lathyrus linifolius) is a fascinating plant in its own right. Native to the Highlands of Scotland it is a delicate fern-like plant with purple flowers. I had used photos of its lovely flowers in the Vicia ervilia article. I have replaced those images–and now I get to show the pretty heath pea once again (properly labeled this time). The heath pea produces a bitter tuber in its roots which was apparently consumed by higlanders in times of scarcity and famine to suppress hunger. Charles II is said to have given it to his mistress Nell Gwyn to help her lose weight (although I make it a practice not to believe everything I read about the restoration court). Mark Goff, who is brave as well as learned, reports that he has been eating the tubers and has noticed no side effects other than weight loss. Since obesity and weight-related health problems are becoming more pervasive in today’s world, contemporary scientists are studying the plant and analytically assessing the claims about it. Contemporary business people are close behind, trying to determine if they can make a fortune from Scottish weight-loss tubers.

 

Lathyrus linifolius

Whatever the end results of theses studies and hopes, I wish to apologize for conflating the two plants and offer my thanks to Mr. Goff. All of this is a massive vindication for Linnaeus who established binomial nomenclature to avoid precisely this sort of misunderstanding. To wrap up this article, here is a statue of the great taxonomist which was given to my alma mater by the king of Sweden!

 

A statue of Carl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), Founder of Binomial Taxonomy...

The Bitter Vetch (Vicia ervilia)

I have written about the first domesticated animal—but what about the first domesticated plants? Nobody is currently sure which exact grain or bean was first farmed but there is a list of eight Neolithic “founder crops” which seem to have come into cultivation more or less at the same time (about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago). Of the 8 original crops, three are grains: Emmer wheat, Einkorn wheat, and good old Barley. One of the crops was flax (which provided both linen and flaxseed). The four remaining Neolithic crops were all pulses (legumes, when used for food) namely lentils, peas, chickpeas, and bitter vetch.

These crops are surprisingly familiar. Just last summer I was sitting in my garden drinking beer (barley) and eating chickpea curry on flatbread (wheat—albeit a descendant of the first cultivars) while wearing a linen shirt. Peas and lentils are equally universal. However, there is one founder crop which has faded almost entirely from the modern world’s consciousness–bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). I am writing this post because I was reading a 2nd century Roman text and came across mention of the vetch. Unfamiliar with the plant I looked it up and found out its ancient lineage. Vicia ervilia has been found at Neolithic and Eneolithic sites across Eastern Europe, the trans-Balkan, and the Levant. The bitter vetch is a small green plant with delicate frond-like leaves and lovely purple flowers. It bears tiny irregular grains which somewhat resemble lentils when split. The grain is exceedingly bitter—when cooked for human consumption the bitterness must be leached out with multiple changes of boiling water (a process which must be followed to prevent poisoning oneself–see more below).

Bitter vetch may have been a staple crop at the dawn of civilization and it was for sale in the markets of the first cities but it fell from favor as tastier starchier grains were discovered. The Roman reference which I encountered was in The Golden Ass by Apuleius, and, because of the narrative peculiarity, of that text it was unclear whether the bitter vetch was meant for people or for livestock. Ascetics ate it throughout the middle ages as a proof they were turning their back on the world, and, because it was easy to grow, it found use among the abjectly poor. To quote, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s The History of Food, bitter vetch “featured in the frugal diet of the poor until the eighteenth century, and even reappeared on the black market in the South of France during the Second World War.”

Bitter Vetch Grain (I think--the image was kind of obliquely labeled)

I have never tried bitter vetch (commenters, I’d love to hear from you regarding this) but it doesn’t sound very good or very nutritious.  In fact it seems like it might be dangerous.  As with Taroc and faba beans, unless one carefully follows a paticular preparation process, the bitter vetch seeds contain toxins.  In an era where everyone is questioning monoculture, factory farming, and transgenic grains it is worth thinking about Bitter vetch. It is a reminder of how good we have it now.

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