Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Every county in North Dakota probably has a population of American vetch. The plant is widely distributed in a variety of open habitats across much of the North American continent.
The bluish-purple flowers of this perennial are about 3/4 inch long. Three to 9 flowers are widely spaced along each branch of the upper stems. There are several varieties of this plant in our area. The typical prairie variety has four to nine very narrow leaflets that connect to a midrib to form leaves about two inches long. Small, curly tendrils tip the ends of the leaflets. Stems are usually about a foot long, and may sprawl along the ground or climb on other plants. The legumes (pods) at maturity are flattish and about as long as the flowers.
American vetch is readily consumed by livestock, so look for the plant in pastures that are in good range condition and not overgrazed. Some seeds of the vetches, such as the faba bean, are roasted and eaten whole or in flour. Several old world vetches are cultivated and plowed down for green manure.
The bean family (Fabaceae) is very large and economically important. The vetches alone number over 400 species. Fab means "bean" and the generic name Vicia "vetch" in Latin. American vetch was first described for science by the distinguished Pennsylvania botanist-theologian Reverend Gotthilf Muehlenberg (1753-1815).