This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Vicia sativa, or Common Vetch. Although it doesn’t sound like something you’d want to eat (it does rhyme with "retch", after all), vetch actually has a myriad of edible uses and a few medicinal ones as well. Vetch is another one of those plants that you’ve probably seen all your life and never really noticed. It has a love/hate reputation in the agricultural community – it’s a noxious pasture weed, but it’s also a valuable nitrogen-fixing cover crop.
Vetch is an annual herbaceous vine. It’s a member of the pea family, and if you’ve ever grown peas, this will be immediately apparent to you. Its leaves, flowers, and pods certainly look the part. Common vetch grows to be about 3’ long, and will trail loosely along the ground, forming tangled mats. It has pinnate compound leaves with a distinctive curl to the leaf stem. All vetch species have attractive, intricate, multi-petaled flowers, usually a bright pink or purple. Common vetch flowers aren’t as dramatic as hairy vetch or American vetch, but are still noticeable. They’re about half an inch across and a pinkish-purple. In late spring, the flowers will turn into elongated bean-like seed pods. There are about a dozen species in the Vicia genus spread around the world, in fact, there is a vetch species native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Don’t get Crown Vetch mixed up in this, though. It hails from the genus Coronilla, has different leaves and a totally different flowering pattern, and is toxic. It doesn’t even look like a true vetch, so I’m not sure how it got the name. Europeans aren’t very original at naming things sometimes. Common vetch hails from Eurasia, growing in temperate areas from Spain to Siberia. There are native vetch species in the United States, such as American Vetch (duh) and Carolina Vetch. Vetch prefers open land to grow on. It’s often a pioneer plant, being one of the first to colonize scorched or cleared earth. It may be found in open woods, but more often you’ll find it in pastures, fields, abandoned home sites, roadsides, and brushy areas. It likes a lot of sun.
Vetch was once a commonly cultivated plant that fell out of favor over time… more on that in a minute. Most of the plant is edible and some species actually taste decent. Common vetch is one of the better ones. The young shoots are edible raw, but better cooked. Vetch is a pretty good potherb, if you go for the younger leaves. It has a mild, grassy flavor that’s a lot like spinach, collards, or turnips. The unique seed pods are edible when they’re young – get them in early summer when they first come out, before they get too tough and stringy. They look like green beans and taste like them, too. Like the shoots and leaves, they’re better cooked. At summer’s end, those same pods produce edible seeds that are about the size of BBs and look a lot like okra seeds. Before the pods dry, they can be shelled out like peas or beans and eaten fresh, or they can be left to dry on the vine and used like any other dry bean. If you find yourself in a long-term survival situation, these seeds can be a valuable resource to harvest in summer and early fall to get you through the winter. Finally, those same seeds, when dried, can be easily ground into a flour for baking bread or thickening soups. Like other legumes, they are high in protein, fats, fiber, and various vitamins and minerals. In fact, vetch seeds are a whopping 25% protein. That’s one of the highest vegetable sources around. However, their nutritional composition changes over time – early in the season when the seeds are still green to a greenish-yellow, they are higher in protein. Later in the season when they begin to dry, protein content decreases and turns to carbohydrates. One plant that’s technically a vetch is Vicia fabia, the Fava Bean or Broad Bean. These things are huge – beans the size of silver dollars, y’all. Jack and the beanstalk kind of stuff. They sometimes grow wild in North America, and are prime fare if you can find them.
Vetch isn’t as useful as a medicine as it is a food, but it still has a few uses nonetheless. It has noted antiseptic properties when used externally as a poultice or internally as a tea. If you have an open wound and you’re concerned with infection, and there’s nothing better to use, a vetch poultice will do. It also is known for being useful for treating skin issues such as eczema.
Vetch and humans go way back. Way, way back, like 10,000-15,000 years. With a few exceptions such as cereal grains, vetch is arguably the oldest plant cultivated by humans. Archaeological remnants have been discovered at sites in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and Greece. It was cultivated for millennia before slowly being phased out in favor of better-yielding, better-tasting crops. It fell out of widespread use after the fall of the Roman Empire. Vetch still has a use in agriculture, albeit a very different one. As a legume, vetch is a nitrogen fixer. We went into detail with it in our post about White Clover last month, but basically, a nitrogen fixer turns air into fertilizer. As such, vetch is widely planted as a cover crop to improve soils in fields during the off season. It increases soluble nitrogen levels, holds the soil in place, and provides literally tons of organic matter. As humans try to look beyond chemically intensive agriculture back to more tried, true, and sustainable solutions, cover crops like vetch provide a ray of hope for increasing crop yields without poisoning the soil. Regardless of how beloved vetch is when growing in fields, it’s usually unwelcome in pastures. Cattle and horses love it, and it’s a great source of protein for them, but the problem is that they generally love it too much. They will overeat it to the point of causing colic, gastric torsion, and even death. In addition, some vetch species are poisonous to livestock in large quantities. And once vetch is established, it’s damn hard to get rid of. An average vetch plant can have a 40” taproot. You ain’t pulling that up.
Vetch has fed humans for thousands of years. It’s been a forgotten companion to us that helped us leave the nomadic lifestyle of the stone age, settle down, and build civilizations. Although it’s rarely eaten in the modern era, you owe it to your ancient ancestors to give it a shot and eat it at least a time or two. Did we miss anything about vetch? Have you tried it before? Tell us in the comments!
Are you a fan of #WildEdibleWednesday? Do you want to get some hands-on knowledge of local medicinal plants and how to use them? Then come to Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft - Plant Medicine on 4/29! Register now at sarcraft.com/sunday-afternoon-bushcraft!