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Native Plant Highlight: Spurred Butterfly Pea

By Karan Rawlins karann457@yahoo.com

This article is courtesy of the Coast Plain Chapter of the Georgia Native Plant Society. The GNPS is dedicated to promoting the stewardship and conservation of Georgia’s native plants and their habitats. The Coastal Plain Chapter serves the people in the Coastal Plain ecoregion of Georgia. This includes all areas south of the Fall Line in middle Georgia, from the Alabama and Florida borders to the Atlantic ocean. To learn more, please visit their website.


My favorite native vine, spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum), is beautiful and grows well in a pot or in the landscape. It is also very easy to care for.

Spurred butterfly pea is so well behaved that I have it growing in four pots on my deck. People always exclaim at how beautiful the flowers are. Spurred butterfly pea ticks all the right boxes: beautiful, easy to grow, host plant for butterfly caterpillars, and nectar plant for adult pollinators. You really can’t ask for much more than that.

My spurred butterfly peas even have longtailed skipper butterfly larva this year. It’s the first year for that. The little caterpillars pull an edge of a leaflet over them and then use silk to hold it in place. Like being tucked into bed at night.

Spurred butterfly pea is a beautiful flowering vine native to the Southeastern United States. It can be found west to Texas and north to New Jersey. Spurred butterfly pea can tolerate a wide range of soil types, temperatures, and water levels. Its uses include native plant habitat restoration work, native plant landscaping, and pollinator gardens. It can be used in home or business landscaping.

Spurred butterfly pea is a host plant for the longtailed skipper (Urbanus proteus) and northern cloudywing (Thorybes pylades) butterfly larvae (caterpillars). It provides nectar for many species of insects, but it has become specialized for pollination by bees.

The spurred butterfly pea is an herbaceous, perennial, delicate looking vine that can reach up to six feet in length. The slender vines twine over other plants or trail along the ground. The stems are covered with tiny rough hairs.

Spurred butterfly pea leaves are attached alternately along the stem. Each leaf has three leaflets. Leaflets can be over 2 ½ Inches long by one inch wide. Conspicuous veins can be seen especially on the underside of the leaf. Leaf petioles have small lance shaped stipules.

Spurred butterfly pea usually blooms throughout the summer, from about June through August. The flowers which have butterfly-like banner petals can be up to two inches wide and range in color from lavender to bluish lavender to pinkish lavender. There are usually darker purple markings and a white spot in the center. The wing and keel petals are shortened and tightly curved in the top center part of the banner petals.

A green spur curves over the top of the wing and keel petals which is what gives it the name, spurred butterfly pea. One to four flowers are held on slender stalks and arise from the leaf axils.

The fruits are narrow pods that can be up to 5 ½ inches long. Spurred butterfly pea is easy to grow from seed. If the seeds are still green when they are planted, they will probably germinate quickly. Be sure the peas in the pods are well filled out, so they will germinate successfully.

Once the seeds have dried, they will usually need cold moist stratification to germinate well, especially north of the Coastal Plain. Be sure to collect the dry pods in a timely manner. The pods will open and twist to disperse the seeds, if left too long. Collecting seeds is a very easy way to share this plant with your friends.

In the wild, spurred butterfly pea can be found in sandy locations, dry upland woods, bottomlands, natural longleaf pine-oak woodlands and disturbed areas.

Spurred butterfly pea is an underused native vine. Unlike most vines, it rarely looks like it is taking over the world. Spurred butterfly pea can brighten up many spots in your landscape. Plant it near a shrub, such as a native holly and the shrub looks like it has large showy blooms all summer. You can grow this beautiful native vine even if you live in an apartment - on a trellis or fence or in a pot.

Check with your local native nursery to see if they carry spurred butterfly pea or if they can get it for you. If your native plant nursery doesn’t have it, check with friends to see if they will collect and share seeds with you. Mature plants can also produce new plants from rhizomes or stolons, which could be shared when the parent plant is repotted.


Chafin, L. G. 2016. Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia and Surrounding States. University of Georgia Press. Page 188.

Cotterman, L., Waitt, D., and Weakley, 2019. A. Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast. Timberland Press Field Guide. Page 332.

Florida Wildflower Foundation. www.flawildflowers.org

Lady Byrd Johnson Wildflower Center. www.wildflower.org

The Native and Naturalized Plants of the Carolinasand Georgia. 2019. www.NameThatPlant.net

Sorrie, B. A. 2011. A Field Guide to Wildflowers of theSandhills Region: North Carolina, South Carolina, andGeorgia. Southern Gateways Guide. Page 86.