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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.
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.
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.