Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
With a name like hairy vetch, it is hard to be appreciated. Though not native to Florida, this flowering legume is common in Wakulla County without being an invasive species. It thrives during winter, and has many benefits year-round.
Many concentrations of non-native plants which have been deliberately introduced over the years and have occasionally escaped into the wild. Some legumes in Wakulla County fit this category of exotic, but non-invasive. They take the typical temperature swings in stride and keep on growing towards a spring bloom while offering some distinct benefit which is valued.
Legumes by definition are a plant with a nitrogen producing bacteria attached to their root system. The bacterial activity produces this essential nutrient giving the plant it a substantial survival advantage over its competitors. Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa) is the most common occurring, non-cultivated legume found in Wakulla County, though not a native plant. This native of Europe and western Asia is a low growing plant easily identified by its elongated dagger-shaped leaves which are half an inch in length.
In spring, this annual plant produces diminutive purple flowers which quickly produce inch-long seed pods. Most of the seed are scattered within a few yard, and over a few years can develop a dense tangle of plants which are attractive to foraging animals. Honeybees and native pollinators can be seen visiting the blooms. No doubt the early blooms are a treat after a long winter of living off stored honey and pollen in the hive. Birds and animals can scatter seed to new areas where the hardy plant will aggressively colonize any suitable environment. The primary deterrent to becoming established in the new site is the plant is eaten or killed before its seed are set.
Hairy vetch is not recommended as forage for domestic or farm animals. Toxicity issues quickly arise, especially with non-ruminants, with excessive consumption. Its primary benefit has been as “green manure”. It has been cultivated in small fields and gardens, then plowed under to add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. A secondary benefit of vetch is its root system. The roots penetrate deeply into the soil and are a form of inexpensive erosion control. Additionally, when the vetch plants die in the spring after setting seed, the root become a conduit for establishing other plants. As the vetch’s roots decay, they serve as an easy canal for other roots to follow.
This time of year hairy vetch may be seen in open or partially shaded areas. The plant is six to 12 inches in height, but with no bloom or seed pods. After a frost, vetch is left unaffected. The colder temperatures work to vetch’s advantage in that many competing plants are killed or stunted. Other commonly seen winter legumes in Wakulla County are clovers, native and non-native. Like vetch, they have a nitrogen fixing bacterial on their roots and they are adept at remaining green even in the cold and frosty temperatures.
To learn more about hairy vetch and other cover crops, read “Cover Crops” at: http.//edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa217, or contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at (850) 926-3931 or visit http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco