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What is Hedysarum?

Hedysarum is a fascinating genus of flowering plants in the legume family, boasting vibrant blossoms and a rich history in traditional medicine. These hardy perennials are not just a feast for the eyes but also a potential treasure trove of health benefits. Wondering how Hedysarum might enhance your garden or well-being? Join us as we unveil its secrets.
Vasanth S.
Vasanth S.

Hedysarum is a plant genus that is part of the Fabaceae family. It consists of about 100 species of annual and perennial herbs that are native to North America, Europe, Asia, and north Africa. Most of the species feature dense clusters of flowers that are stacked vertically on the branches. Like other members of the Fabaceae family, the Hedysarum genus absorbs compounds produced by microorganisms within the root system to grow. Usually, this genus of plants is found in open plains or grazed pastures.

The genus name is derived from the Greek word hedusaron, which was used by Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher, to describe a plant within the Fabaceae family thousands of years ago. The genus Hedysarum was named by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. Most plants in this genus are commonly known as sweetvetch. For example, Hedysarum boreale is called boreal sweetvetch or northern sweetvetch, and Hedysarum alpinum is called alpine sweetvetch.

Brown bears feed on hedysarum.
Brown bears feed on hedysarum.

This genus is cultivated throughout the world. H. boreale is located throughout Canada and the western half of the United States. H. coronarium populates the north African countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and it also grows in Spain. H. gmelinii is distributed throughout northern Asia, from Siberia down to northern China.

H. boreale typically grows 12 to 36 inches (30-90 cm) in height and features multi-branched stems. The leaves are green and usually stacked singly at different heights on the stem. The leaves can be composed of a single leaflet or divided into two leaflets.

Licorice roots belong to the hedysarum plant genus.
Licorice roots belong to the hedysarum plant genus.

Depending on the species, the flowers are red, pink, or purple and bloom between April and August. The flowers on H. boreale are usually symmetrical pea flowers, but in some varieties the five petals are joined at the base and arranged like a cup. The flowers generally attract butterflies.

It is recommended to grow boreal sweetvetch in dry, sandy, or rocky soil, that has a slightly alkaline pH. Its natural habitats are dry, rocky hillsides and roadsides. This species also requires lots of direct sunlight and an average amount of water.

The roots of the plants in this genus are rather interesting. Most of the plants utilize a taproot, which consists of a centralized main root that extends vertically downward. Peripheral roots project laterally from the main root. It has a sweet taste and is commonly referred to as licorice-roots. It is the principal diet of brown bears, and a few European species are cultivated for cattle feed.

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Discussion Comments


I am from Utah, and sweetvetch is considered a valuable plant for many reasons.

It is known to help improve the soil quality by releasing nitrogen into the soil. This plant also helps with soil erosion and you see it planted along the roadsides in Utah.

Some places even use this, along with other species, for land improvement projects.

I don't know if there are any medicinal uses for it, but some say it tastes like licorice.

Another advantage of this in my part of the country is that many big game feed on this plant. This is food for buffalo, deer moose and elk.

Because it is so easy to grow and doesn't take any maintenance, you don't have to look very far to see Hedysarum growing in my state.


I know of two different places where I have seen different types of sweetvetch growing.

My sister lives in Arizona and I have seen this clumped together out in the desert. The bright flowers are really eye catching.

The other place I have seen this growing in the wild is up in the mountains in Colorado. I am always surprised to see these bright flowers in bloom when there isn't much other vegetation around.

Both of these places have very dry soil and no humidity. Even though they are different species of hedysarum, they both thrive under these dry, rocky conditions.

If I tried to plant this in my area where we get a lot of rain and have high humidity, it probably wouldn't grow very well.


I have never heard of sweetvetch before, but if this is a bear's primary diet, I hope there is none where I live.

I have been in close contact with a brown bear when she had a cub with her, and I was petrified. This is something I want to stay as far away from as possible.

It seems like there are several "pretty flowers" that are either weeds or can be poisonous. If you spend much time outside, it is good to know about your native plants, but how can you know about all of them?

I guess the best advice would be that if you are in doubt or not familiar with it, to leave it alone.


Are there any medicinal uses for this flower? It seems like I have heard licorice root being used for some herbal remedies and wonder if this is from this plant.

We have this in abundance in our cow pastures. I think the cows eat it if there is nothing else to eat, but probably don't prefer it.

When there is a lot of it growing together, it does look pretty when the flowers are in bloom. Most of the blooms where I live are light purple in color.

When I look out across the pasture, I often see butterflies landing on these flowers. My dad is not fond of them and looks at them more like a weed than anything else.

I think there must be some redeeming qualities since they are so many species of this plant.


@shell4life – There are actually different kinds of hedysarum. One kind is poisonous to humans, and the other is safe to eat.

The kind called “wild sweet pea” is toxic. It has bright purple flowers that are not clustered very close together.

Licorice root, the other kind, is perfectly fine for consumption. That's the one that has a sweet taste. It looks more like a hyacinth, with the tiny blooms clustered together up a stalk.

However, I find that it is wise to stay away from both. I don't trust wildflowers, because so many of them look like something else.


I live in Utah, and I have some pink hedysarum growing along the front of my property. I live on a hill, so I needed something to stop it from eroding and washing onto the road.

Around here, they call it “northern sweetvetch.” I have always heard that it is great at preventing erosion, so I got some seed and sowed a whole bunch of it on the lower slope of my hill.

It sprang forth rather quickly with a ton of pink blossoms in June. I have heard that there is a purple variety, and I would love to mix the two for a beautiful combination. If the purple hedysarum seed grows like the pink kind, I would have no trouble producing a good crop quickly.


@kylee07drg – Although bears and cows can eat it, humans cannot. I have always heard that sweetvetch is poisonous, and though I've only heard this about the root, I wouldn't risk eating another part of it, if I were you.

This plant grows along the sides of the road all around my neighborhood. I was at my uncle's house with my baby one day, and he has plenty of the stuff growing along the edge of his yard. When he saw my baby reaching out to grab a handfull of sweetvetch, he yelled out and ran to scoop her up.

I'm glad that he told me about it being poisonous. I have some of it growing in front of my house, too, and now, I want to get rid of it.


I have seen sweetvetch growing in my neighbor's pasture. It looks kind of unsturdy, like it would be easy to yank up if you grabbed it by the base. I have never tried, though, because though I'm allowed to walk out there, it isn't my land.

It looks like it would be good in a salad. I have heard of using other flowers and weeds as salad ingredients, and I wonder if sweetvetch would taste the same.

Does anyone know if it is edible by humans? If so, I might harvest some seed and see if I can get it growing on my property.

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    • Brown bears feed on hedysarum.
      By: roblan
      Brown bears feed on hedysarum.
    • Licorice roots belong to the hedysarum plant genus.
      By: Hayati Kayhan
      Licorice roots belong to the hedysarum plant genus.