Common vetch (vicia sativa)
The common vetch (vicia sativa) is a native species of purple wildflower that flourishes in Britain and Europe. Also known as the ‘garden vetch’, it is a member of the pea family that grows up to 70 cm and flowers throughout June to August. It produces (as you might expect from a legume) long, hairy, dark green coloured seed pods that replace the dark purple flowers at the end of summer. The pod becomes smooth and black as it ripens before it splits and spreads the seeds inside.
The petals are shaped rather like butterflies resting on the stems; the flexible stems are long and can hold several flower heads, though typically this variety has three or four blooms per stem, a little like sweet peas. The leaves are narrow and oval, with short stalks, and several of them grow perpendicular to the stems all the way up from the base up to (and around) the flowers.
This pretty wildflower grows all over the countryside and is most often spotted in meadows, hedgerows and also on farmland; that is because as a nitrogen-fixer it is great for improving the quality and fertility of soil. Another benefit of this particular wildflower is that it is attractive to pollinating insects, bees, butterflies and moths (and, in turn, attracts a variety of garden birds).
Traditional uses for Common Vetch
Traditionally, the common vetch has been used as food for livestock, and was also used in medicine to treat eczema and other skin irritations, and as an antiseptic. The seed pods can be eaten by humans, but it is important to correctly identify them as several other varieties look very similar but have seed pods that are inedible and poisonous.
The RHS Perfect for Pollinators list gives the names of the various flowers and plants that are known to attract pollinating insects. Vicia sativa’s cousin, vicia faba (the broad bean) is listed, though vicia sativa is not, possibly because it is a multi-petalled flower and as such would not be included in the list. However, it is known to be attractive to those visitors we would all like to encourage into our gardens, particularly knowing that the bee population is in trouble and needs all the help it can get.
Growing Common Vetch in your garden
A great way to introduce vicia sativa into your garden is to consider buying it as part of a Meadowmat, which is a pre-planted turf roll full of a wide variety of wildflowers that have been specially chosen for their attractiveness to pollinators. The variety included in a meadowmat has been designed to ensure a long flowering period (with different flowers blooming at different times of the year, and at different times of the day to attract as wide a range of insects as possible) and many different colours. The common vetch makes a pretty addition to any wildflower garden.