Wednesday Weed – Tufted Vetch

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca) growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca) growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

When I was doing my exploration of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last week, I came across this delicate-looking, lilac-flowered plant. For all its seeming fragility, it was doing a great job of scrambling across the brambles and the bindweed. When looked at closely, it’s easy to see that this is a member of the pea family – the anchor-shaped hooks at the end of each frond of leaves are used to attach to whatever happens to be close by, and later in the year the plant will develop pods, each containing tiny ‘peas’.

A close look at Tufted Vetch makes clear that it is a type of pea....

A close look at Tufted Vetch makes clear that it is a type of pea….

Like all peas, Tufted Vetch fixes nitrogen in the soil. It does this because its roots contain nodules in which a bacteria called Rhizobia lives. While the plant is alive, the bacteria produces nitrogen compounds which help it to grow, and to compete with other plants. When the plant dies, the nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants and hence helping to fertilise the soil.  As nitrogen is one of the building blocks for DNA and for proteins, this is vital to the health of the whole ecosystem.


Tufted Vetch growing over bramble – © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Another name for Tufted Vetch is Cow Vetch, because it has been widely used as forage for cattle. Like all members of the pea family, it is also a great favourite with bees. The plant is native to Europe and Asia, but has been introduced to North America, where in areas of prairie it can be more vigorous than the native plants, crowding them out, and is therefore sometimes viewed as a detrimental weed. I find this a little surprising – although it is a scrambler, Tufted Vetch doesn’t seem much of a thug, certainly not when compared to plants like Bindweed.

The true beauty of Tufted Vetch is seen when it’s growing in a tangle with Birdsfoot Trefoil and Clover, bedstraws and buttercups. The gardener and cook Sarah Raven, in her book ‘Wild Flowers’, says that:

‘I often think I would love to cut one of these combinations with a single swipe of a sickle and put it all in a vase’.

I know what she means, but how much nicer lay on your back in a meadow, look at the tangle of flowers and watch the ladybirds and butterflies going about their business.











6 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Tufted Vetch

  1. Jiri Sadlo

    (… some unassuming comments only:) The first photo of Vicia cracca seems to be rather east-european Galega officinalis (straight stem, pale violaceous flowers etc.). Ad Elecampane: rather than Inula helenium it is East-Carpathian ornamental Telekia speciosa (cordate leaves etc.; according to my short look to Google, both species are very often confused. Thank You for recipe to ajiaco: our garden is full of weedy Galinsoga – I certainly utilize! With kind regards
    J.S. (Prague, Czech Republic).

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Jiri, thanks for your comments! I’ve had another look at my post, and I agree that the Vicia is a Galega – in fact, I discovered another of these plants growing not a quarter of a mile from this one, and did a separate post on it. And I suspect you’re right about the Elecampane/Telekia, though how it appeared in my garden I have no idea! Both of these were early posts, and I know a (little) bit more now, but it’s always good to talk to someone who knows a bit more :-). I love Prague by the way – I’ve visited for pleasure and for work, and always find something new to be delighted by.

      1. Jiri Sadlo

        Hi, thanks for your reply. Ad Telekia: both in London and Central Europe, this plant spreads well and at long distances by seeds, and easily germinates. Clearly, the seed has no special spreading mechanism (such as parachute in dandelions), but I thing the accident is a powerfull wizard, and e.g. shaggy paw of a dog (we have boxer) seems to be a sufficient transmitter :o-). (sorry for my English but I stoped already)

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