Phenology Files: July 2023

phenology fi-ˈnä-lə-jē n 1 : a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (such as bird migration or plant flowering) 2: periodic biological phenomena that are correlated with climatic conditions.

Perennial Bloom: Seaside Pea

Authored by Zane Williams

It’s July, so we’re officially into blue sky season on the north Olympic Peninsula! This time of year heralds long days, heavy traffic, and outdoorsy activities. If you’ve been exploring the outdoors this month, I’m sure you’ve noticed that much of our flora is in bloom. By mid-summer, perennial plants—those which live for several years, rather than budding, blooming, and dying in one year—have stored up enough resources to produce seeds and reproduce. For those of us on the Peninsula, the perennial bloom means colorful forests and countless foraging opportunities.

A Seaside Pea in bloom by T. Abe Lloyd

Our highlight today is the Seaside Pea, Lathyrus japonicus. It is not unique to the North Olympic Peninsula, but the conditions here are perfect for the trailing plant’s growth! It’s present everywhere on the American and Canadian coasts, so if you’ve moved away from the Peninsula, you can still find a bit of home in the Seaside Pea.

The geographic distribution of Lathyrus japonicus by Crop Wild Relatives in the Netherlands

The Seaside Pea is identifiable by its reddish-purple to blue flowers, light green oval leaves, and curling tendrils. It thrives on sandy beaches and gravelly beaches with driftwood. Later in the summer, these plants develop pea pods.

Ripe Beach Peas in the half shell by T. Abe Lloyd

While the pea pods produced by these peas may look like ones in your garden, take caution in your foraging forays – these plants have a complicated ethnobotanical history. Because of its similarity to the dangerous Grass Pea, Lathyrus sativus, the Seaside Pea gets a bit of a bad rep. People who eat Lathyrus sativus are at risk of a neurological paralytic disorder known as Lathyrism. Because many European peasants had to rely on the Grass Pea for survival during times of famine and, subsequently, many of these peasants were paralyzed, the entire genus became known as dangerous.

Enjoy the perennial bloom this summer! What other perennial plants are you seeing in bloom? Send us your photos! If you are looking for a quiet place to explore locally, consider visiting one of our four public conservation areas. More information can be found here!