Bitter vetch = Heath pea = cairmeal = Lathyrus Linifolius

vetch by river jun 13
Heath pea and bluebells

As I was looking up the growth habits of the various legumes that grow wild on the holding here I came across some interesting information about bitter vetch: Lathyrus linifolius. It is a perennial also known as heath pea, and in the gaelic: cairmeal, or corra-meille. As I said before, it’s one of the earliest vetch to flower, coming into bloom during May, but still with flowers to come now in early July. The little bright pink pea flowers fade to blue or beige. As the tiny pea pods ripen, they first swell then shrink a little and turn black before splitting and spiralling the tiny seeds away. The seeds are very tiny, and probably mildly poisonous – a paralysis disease can result from eating significant quantities of other lathyrus seeds unless properly treated, for example leached in water, so I wouldn’t try them.

In bloom and mature pods

As a legume, the Heath pea should form relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil, so adding to the soil fertility as the plant grows and dies. I was thinking of saving the seed from this and the other native vetches to see whether they would be any use as nitrogen fixing ground covers. Winter tares (Vicia sativa) is sold as an overwintering green manure crop, although it is suggested that it doesn’t like acid soil. Well as I know these vetch grow locally, logically they would make a possible alternative. Anyway, interest seems to have been sparked in Heath pea when the tubers were found by Brian Moffat during an archaeological dig of a twelfth century monastery at Soutra Aisle. His research paper proposed that the monks were using the tubers medicinally. Apparently before potatoes the cairmeal tubers were dug and dried against famine in the Highlands. The tiny tubers were alleged to save people from hunger and enable great feats of endurance, possibly being used by Roman soldiers during battle. I found various online references to this including PFAF, and my Scots Herbal book by Tess Darwin also refers to this. The tubers are said to be sweet like licorice (which is also a legume of course) and were also used to make a drink that prevented hangovers! There were several articles in the mainstream press, including the Mail and the Telegraph, although none caught my eye at the time, the possibility of a Scottish slimming aid being pretty newsworthy. It seems that there has been a bit of research going on in Scotland since. The only paper I could subsequently find online however, found no significant difference in weight change between rats fed the vetch tubers and various controls ( I only could read the summary, so there may be more significant information in the rest of the article. There is also an entrepreneurial chap in Reading, who appears to be growing and selling seeds and tubers online (under the bitter-vetch tag). He (I think I’m assuming that!) gives a little information about the growing habit of the vetch: a single tuber grows the first year, if left, it bulbs up in subsequent years, and more tubers grow. The plant can be propagated from these secondary tubers as well as from the seed. Weight loss apart, I would be interested in trying the tubers. I’d come across Lathyrus tuberosa, which has larger tubers, but was put off by the fact it is described by several people as being ‘attractive to slugs’. It also prefers more alkaline soils so wouldn’t do so well here presumably. However, I know that Heath pea likes it here, although I would say it appears to prefer the slightly drier soils, possibly because it is slightly small so has less competition from more vigorous plants. I haven’t noticed slugs eating it particularly. It happily grows in grass, but presumably would grow better with less competition.

Heath pea tuber dug up in July

I couldn’t resist digging this tuber and have planted it in the fruit area amongst my root crops which are due for digging in autumn.Β  There appear to be little tubers (or possibly bacteria nodules I suppose?) on the roots close to the main tuber already.Β  I’ve collected some seed from various plants around the holding, and will try sowing some as green manures (and in pots -why not?) this autumn. If it’s edible, palatable, feeds the soil and grows well, what’s not to like? There may be some scope to increase tuber size to make it more worthwhile as a crop, but as a gourmet snack it is still interesting!

21 thoughts on “Bitter vetch = Heath pea = cairmeal = Lathyrus Linifolius

  1. J > Very interesting. I haven’t seen any of these on our croft, but then I possibly haven’t been expecting to see anything like it. I would be interested in seeing if it can be introduced to our croft, to increase biodiversity, the productivity of the ground, and out of curiosity to try the tubers/nodules as a ‘gourmet snack’!

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  2. I’ll put you on a list for seed if you like? As I said it’s fairly low growing, so could be good as an intercrop. As well as generally improving soil as a legume.


  3. I didn’t know liquorice was a legume – good to know 😊.

    By the way, I’m sure I saw a sign on a grass verge on my travels which said the plants were vetch. I didn’t seem appropriate to stop on a narrow country lane to investigate further. Still, interesting the verge had a sign.


    1. To have a sign on the verge plants is slightly odd. Sometimes they leave the verges uncut to allow the flowers to set. Do you think this may have been the case? Perhaps they were a rarer species. I dont think any of mine are particularly uncommon.


    2. Licorice grows fairly tall c. 3 ft or so and has quite pretty Mauve pea flowers. It is perennial. You would dig it after a few years to harvest the roots which could be used to make sweets! I’ve not succeeded I getting it to grow here yet, I’ve had seedlings, but they’ve either died of their own accord or been eaten by slugs. I will try again, because I think they should do reasonably well here.


      1. It would be interesting to try, though whether I would make sweets or not, maybe just chew the roots (I used to eat liquorice root as a kid).


    1. If you have chenopodium like ‘good king henry’ or ‘fat hen’ (that one sounds promising for a start!) that might be good as well – good protein like quinoa. Alison at backyard larder (not WP unfortunately) recently posted about using the seed from GKH for cooking.


  4. I’d love you to keep me informed… I’m trying to find a few plants or seeds to grow. πŸ™‚ Please keep me informed. Thanks.


      1. Thanks. I’ve tried to contact him but no luck. I have now got plants from 2 sources. And found two further potential suppliers. I’ve also located it in the wild. Going to meet Dr Moffat very soon too. I’ve tried the tubers and they work very well! πŸ™‚ Taking 1g (about 4mm cube every 2nd to 3rd day. That staves off hunger and gives a ‘slow burn energy’ boost. πŸ™‚

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    1. I haven’t tried it for real yet. I did nibble on a bit of tuber last summer, but found it very bitter. This may have been a very old plant so I don’t consider it a fair trial yet. I have an old book which describes how the author as a young boy used to dig up the tubers ‘to give strength’ so I do expect them to be moderately palatable normally. The wild plants are gradually spreading around and I have some seed grown plants to plant out this spring also. The wild ones are difficult to dig as they grow in turf, so I am going to grow some interplanted in various parts of cultivation where, as legumes, they won’t do any harm anyhow.

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      1. Ok right. The one I’m trying has an intitial bitter taste then the licquorice takes over. That liquorice flavour can stay for many hours. Even disguising anything else you eat … ! πŸ™‚ It takes away thirst and hunger.
        I decided to keep eating 2 to 3 meals a day but lighter, although tonight I ate too much and I have a very gentle ‘v full feeling’. It wasn’t a massive meal by most people’s standards – just a little piece of chicken thigh and several veggies.
        So you know you’ve overdone it.
        No side effects. We know it has 60 chemicals in it and they don’t know how it works but know that it does. πŸ™‚
        I plan to take it for many months yet to make sure I slim down the last few lbs gently and reduce fat too ! πŸ˜€
        It is working and helps one feel totally in control.
        The tuber I got (& ordered more plants & tubers if poss) was 4cm long and I took off a knobbly bit to test for Liquorice just to triple confirm that it is the right one!
        I’m now slicing into the rest of the tuber but expect more soon. Although I’m only eating a tiny amount! There’s another smaller tuber on one of the plants I’m growing in a tub. So I can turn to that. You don’t ‘have to’ dry them off but ancients did.
        I’d love to get a copy of the book that you have please. Can you give me details or email me ? πŸ™‚
        I’m looking forward to going to SOutra Aisle and meeting Dr Brian Moffat and have a great chat with him.
        I spoke to someone else today who’d tried to get a large cultivation of the plant going but sadly it failed. I’m meeting in a few weeks. πŸ™‚

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      2. Interesting to hear that you feel it does have an appetite supressing effect. I have a few plants in little pots that I will try planting in various cultivated areas and try harvesting thectubers this year.
        The book is ‘Life in the highlands and islands of Scotland’ by Colin MacDonald (1882-1957). Echoes of the Glen (part 1 of the book), chapter XXIII. He calls the tubers corochans:
        Hopefully that should be a link to the relevant text.


      3. How very interesting! πŸ™‚ Dr Brian Moffat says he’s come across around 250 words, prahses for the same plant. I’m sure’ll he’ll confirm this name is on his list! πŸ™‚
        But yes I’ve red how kids used them to barter, but these sound small! Mine is 4cm so possibly a bit large to fit in the mouh all at once, never mind 12 – so they must be young tubers! The older one’s are more potent too.
        A plant takes 4 yrs to fully develop and hence why I’ve been buying plants than starting from seed.
        I understand that a hazelnut piece will stave off hunger for 3 days but I wanted to strt slow! As a tubers can grow about the size of your fist, a good mature one will last a long time!
        Just taken another sliver tonight but it’s been 3 days ago and although I’ve been just a tad nibblish I’ve not felt ‘fully’ hungry ! So it may ‘build up’ too. If I over eat I do get a really ‘fully feeling’ too so a self-teaching lesson not to eat too much! πŸ™‚

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