This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Erect, villous; leaflets numerous, oblong, mucronate; raceme terminal, subsessile among the leaves; legume falcate, villous; perennial; plant 1 to 2 feet high; stem simple, very leafy; leaflets 15 to 27, 10 to 13 lines by 2 to 3 lines, straight-veined, odd one oblong-obcordate; petiolules one line long; stipules subulate, deciduous; flowers as large as those of the locust, in a short, crowded cluster; calyx very villous; banner white; keel rose-colored; wings red. (Wood's Class-Book of Botany. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, Chapman's Flora of the Southeru United States, and Torrey & Gray's Flora of the United States.)
TO those who live in the vicinity of New York or Philadelphia, New Jersey is a favorite botanical hunting-ground. Our plant may be found there in some abundance in the drier localities during June and July, and it is sure to excite admiration. The color of the flower is not brilliant, but it is sufficient to attract attention, and the neatness of its structure, with the somewhat graceful habit of the foliage, afford pleasure to those who are artistically inclined. The impression the plant gives is one of novelty, for it has more of the character of plants from the Cape of Good Hope, or from Australia, as we see them in green-houses, or judge of them from herbarium specimens, than of those which we generally see in the Atlantic United States. Indeed, species of Tephrosia abound in Southern Africa and the East Indies; and speaking of plants as if they had all wandered from a central point, we might say that our Tephrosias had really wandered far away from their original home. We have but a few species in the United States, but there are some in the West Indies and in Mexico, and in the southern part of the American continent. It is not by any means in New Jersey only that our plant is found in abundance, for it is frequently met with in wild, uncultivated places from Canada to Florida, west to the Mississippi River, and even beyond, in Arkansas and Texas, to some extent. It varies, however, in some of these districts ; so much, indeed, that several species have been made out of it. The leaves change somewhat in these different places, both in form and hairiness, being sometimes nearly smooth. The color of the flowers is also darker in some places than in others. In Michigan, according to Mr. N. Coleman, the two outer petals are almost green.
The silky appearance of the leaves of some of the earliest known species suggested the botanical name Tcphrosia, "te-phros" being Greek for "ashen gray," which is the appearance these silky-haired leaves present; our species exhibits the same characteristic, almost as much so as those which gave the family name. In the time of Linnaeus, however, it was not known as Tephrosia, but as Galega Virginiana, under which name it must be looked for in the earlier botanical works. The original Galega officinalis has been left almost alone, the greater part of the many scores of species which once formed that genus being given to its newer-born rival, Tephrosia, chiefly on account of their flat pods or seed-vessels, for the original Galega has them almost torulose or round. Besides this the vexillum or standard, as the upper petal is called, is longer in Galega than in Tephrosia.
The separation from Galega has deprived our plant of much of its early family history, for G. officinalis was the common "Goat's-Rue" of the early writers. Rue itself is another plant, and was used by the old monks to drive away evil spirits that, without proper reason, insisted on bothering mankind. An old writer tells us that these Satanic imps held in utter detestation holy water, Rue, and some other things. The Galega was not called Goat's-Rue, however, because it served goats as its namesake served evil spirits (as many persons who want to have gardens where others want goats might well wish), but rather from a slight resemblance in the leaves to the true Rue. The qualifying term, "Goat's," was added because goats eat it with avidity in the places where it grows naturally. In old times the ancient Goat's-Rue was supposed to have strong cordial qualities, and perhaps if it had, the goats, borrowing a hint from a portion of mankind, might have been glad of a little stimulant to a naturally festive disposition. Some of the Tephrosias have a very severe character of this sort, and are used to intoxicate fish. The leaves are powdered and thrown into the water, and they act so powerfully on the fish that many of them never recover, but die. This particular species, X. toxicaria, is cultivated in the West Indies especially to furnish material for this form of fish hunting. Our plant, X. Virginiana, has been found to have some of the virtues ascribed to the original Galega. Dr. Wood regarded it as a mild, stimulating tonic and laxative, and used it with good results in typhoid fever. He prepared it by mixing eight ounces of the plant with two of Rumex acutus, or, as we now say, R. oblongifolius, the Common Field-Dock, in four quarts of water, and boiling the decoction down to a quart; after straining he gave it in doses of one or two tablespoonfuls. When the Europeans came here, they found it a popular vermifuge with the Indians, who used the roots in that capacity, and our people regard it as very useful still. These roots are very long, travelling a great way under ground, and are so tough and wiry that they have procured for the plant the name of "Catgut," under which it is known in the South, in allusion to the similar toughness of violin strings. In most botanical works, however, it has retained its old name of Goat's-Rue (although probably never a goat in America ate it), and as Virginian Goat's-Rue it is often referred to in popular writings. Dr. Gray and some others have used a translation of the botanical name for a common one, namely, Hoary Pea, which is much more characteristic than Goat's-Rue, and worthy of adoption. This would make our species the Virginian Hoary Pea, and all we can say is that our readers have a choice of names. Dr. Peyre Porcher tells us that in the South it is often called "Turkey-Pea."
Though so common in the wild regions of the East, it has not yet found its way into cultivation in our gardens, and, indeed, it does not appear to be in any of the gardens of Europe, although the people there make great efforts to get everything attractive from all parts of the world. It has, no doubt, often been introduced there, but seems impatient of horticultural restraint and gradually pines away. Indeed, an English floricultural writer of sixty years ago says of it, "Though this plant is tolerably hardy in our country, it is nevertheless difficult to preserve it in gardens, for the seeds rarely ripen in England and the plants are often destroyed in winter by the frost." It may be observed that the frost it endures here is more severe than any in Europe, but it is found that many plants which have a high summer heat will endure more cold in winter, and in this way the cooler summer temperature of Europe is not favorable to great endurance in the winter season. In relation to the difficulty of keeping it alive in Europe, Mr. Philip Miller, another celebrated garden-writer of the past age, says, "The only method by which I have been able to keep these plants has been by potting them and placing the pots under a common frame in winter, where they enjoyed the free air in mild weather, but were protected from frost; they have been kept in this way for three years, but never ripened seed in our climate."
Although, as we have said, there are a great many points of interest in the Virginian Hoary Pea, yet the plant is by no means of the highest type of beauty. The thick peduncle, suddenly terminating in the short, thick-set cluster, has a rather " hunchbacked" look, and the gray green is odd, but that is all. The elegance of its leaf-outlines is its redeeming feature. Still it is a plant much more worthy of culture than many which have a place in gardens, and our own florists might perhaps be more successful with it than those of England.
1. A flowering branch.
2. Under ground stem, or rhizome.