Grassland vetches.

Walking through rough grassland, meadows or along hedgerows during July, it is very likely  that you will encounter at least one if not all of our three common vetches. These are the Bush vetch, Tufted vetch and the Common vetch.

These plants belong to the pea and bean family-Fabaceae and are related to many cottage garden favourites such as the Sweet pea. Perhaps the most widespread and numerous of these is the bush vetch, Vicia sepium, which is the first under review. 

Bush vetch-Vicia sepium

Photograph by Dal

Bush vetch description

This plant has sprawling stems which produce alternate With pinnate {divided} foliage with two stipules near the base where the leaf joins the stem. The leaflets numbering five to nine pairs are arranged opposite to each other on either side of the leaf stem. There is no terminal leaflet, but, rather a branching tendril which they utilise to good effect to grasp surrounding vegetation for support. 

The stems may well reach the height/length of between 20-100cm.{8 to 3 feet 4inches.} . The flowers are pea-like in form which can vary in colour from a greyish blue to a purplish pink. there are between 2 and 6 flowers per flower head which occur in stalked clusters.each flower has five petals. The standard petal is veined with streaks of dark purple. They are 1.2-1.5 cms { three quarters of an inch} wide.

Once the flowers have faded they turn brown and eventually succeeded by hairless seed pods. { typical again of the pea family} The pods are green at first then turn black as the contained seeds ripen. They hold between 3-7 seeds. The pods are 2.3 -5 cm {three quarters of an inch to just under two inches } long.

The flowers appear from May to August but are at their most prolific in July. They may be encountered in rough grassy places woodland margins, and more rarely they appear on sand dunes.


Photograph by Dal

Tufted vetch, Vicia cracca

The next under review is the tufted vetch Vicia cracca which is also referred to as cow vetch or bird vetch. It occurs in grassy fields, meadows, roadside ditches and on coastal rock and shingle.

This species forms large clumps which are evident from some distance. it is another species that send out grasping tendrils which aid in its support. They produce a plethora of bluish purple flowers a salient feature. The leaves are as the former species much divided into leaflets which may number between 8 and 15 pairs. They are more linear than those of the former species and are sometimes covered by downy hairs. each leaf is terminated in a branched tendril. The stems are sprawling and weak and may reach a height /length of up to 180 cm.

Tufted vetch has up to 30 flowers in clustered spikes.

Photograph by Dal

The flowers of tufted vetch

Tufted vetch produces a plethora of flowers arranged in a one sided raceme that tend to cascade. They produced the the short stalks from the axil of the leaf joints. These tightly packed racemes may well hold up to 40 individual flowers on each. The flowers are 8-12 mm wide. They flower from June until August.

The flowers are succeeded by seed pods that are hairless about 2cm long which hold 6-8 seeds.

I know gardeners that train this species  to climb up a trellis or hedge, or even allow them trail from a retaining wall or similar structure. In these situations the flowers provide a stunning display...

The common vetch 

Now we review the third of our three subjects, the common vetch, which unfortunately is not now as common as it once was, despite its name.

It is as the former two, a sprawling plant, an annual which was introduced from southern Europe as a fodder plant for cattle. However, it is still widespread in distribution, but has lost numbers through loss of suitable habitat due to changes in land use and spraying of herbicides. 

common vetch

photograph by Dal

weak stems

The weak stems may reach over 100 cm in length with 3-8 pairs of oblong to narrow heart shaped leaflets which have sharp points at their tips. Like the former two the leaves are terminated with a branched tendril which is used for support and to aid its climb towards the light. At the base of the leaf there are two small rough toothed stipules each bearing a black spot.

The flowers, usually paired but sometimes solitary are a vivid red to purplish pink in colour. The wing of the keel petal usually being a little darker than the standard petal. The flowers are up to 2.5 cm long. They flower from April until September.

The flowers are succeeded by yellowish brown or brown pods, often with bead like segments with 6-12 seeds in each the pods are 2.5-7 cm long.  

Young seed pods of the common vetch

Photograph by Dal

Meadow vetchling

Photograph by Dal

Other relatives

There are many relatives which will be the subject of other pages in the future, however here I will take the opportunity to look at a yellow flowered relative with a similar type of pea-like flowers. The Meadow Vetchling Lathyrus pratensis which as a perennial root stock. The yellow flowers are borne in clusters of 5-12 on very long flower stalks.

Although the leaf is terminated by tendrils they have but one pair of spear-shaped leaflets. At the base of each flower stalk are a pair of large arrow-shaped stipules. They flower from May until August. It is another species that forms prominent clumps in grassland. The stems mat reach up to 100 cm long.

The flowers are succeeded by pods which turn black when ripe and are 2-4 cm long.

The reason many species flower so prolifically is that the tendrils which are used for support mean that the plant does not have to grow a stout flowering stem. Thus most of the plants energy can be diverted in to producing flowers.

Vicia is a genus  of about 140 species commonly known as vetches. Some other genera of their sub-family, also have names containing "vetch" for example vetchlings { Lathyrus} or the milk vetches {Astragalus}The most useful relative of the vetches to man, is the broad bean.


Image courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

components of the common vetch

Image courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

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Other wild flora on this site can be viewed by clicking on the individual banners at the top of this  page where you will find them grouped together. 

Series UK Red List plants  commencing with UK Red List -1  {Pheasants eye}.

Basic Plant biology 1-2-3.

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