Vetch (botanical name Vicia) is a genus of plants. It belongs to the legume family and the subfamily of the papilionaceous plants.
Vetches have thin and branched stems that are independently erect or drooping, depending on the species. However, many species develop coiled tendrils and can thus climb up other plants, for example.
The leaves of the vetch are alternate, i.e. alternately right and left, arranged on the stems. They are divided into petiole and leaf blade. The blades are pinnate in pairs in most species, with Vicia subvillosa being an exception.
The flowers grow either singly or in small groups in the leaf axils or in lateral, so-called racemose inflorescences. They are hermaphroditic, mirror-symmetrical, bell-shaped fused, often hairy, and consist of five sepals. Vetches have small bracts, which, however, often fall off early. In contrast, bracts are basically absent.
The color of the flowers varies greatly depending on the species. There are species with white or yellow flowers as well as red-flowered ones. Also various shades of blue to purple variants occur.
Each flower has ten stamens, but only one carpel, which in turn contains two to eight ovules. The pistils are pencil-shaped and hairy.
Vetches form legumes that are elongated and, depending on the species, tend to be flat and thin to knobbly. They are reminiscent of those of sugar snap peas or soybeans, for example. Each pod contains two to eight spherical to slightly elongated seeds.
There are about 160 different species of vetches worldwide. These are divided into two subgenera and a total of 26 sections.
The main distribution areas are the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, including Central Europe. Nevertheless, vetches can also be found in warmer regions of the northern hemisphere as well as in the global south. Examples include Hawaii, the South American Andes, and tropical Africa.
Some species of vetch are cultivated and used by humans. Probably the best known among them is the field bean. Its seeds and shoots are used as fodder on the one hand, but also as food. As a rule, however, only the seeds are used for this purpose. The protein-rich, kidney-shaped beans are particularly prized in Mediterranean cuisine and in the Arab world.
But the field bean is also cultivated and used in Germany. Other vetch species that play a role in agriculture in this country are lentil vetch, forage vetch and shaggy vetch. Unlike the field bean, however, these species are not used for human nutrition. Their main use is as animal feed. However, they are sometimes also used as a so-called green manure plant. In this case, the ripe fruits are not harvested, but plowed under together with the entire plant. This serves to improve soil quality and protect against soil erosion.
The first scientific naming of the vetch was in 1753 by the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné in his work “Species Plantarum” (Latin for “plant species”).
The bird’s vetch is said to have developed into a so-called cultural companion as early as the Neolithic period.
According to a tale dating back to ancient times, vetches are said to thrive best when sown between the 25th and 30th day in the lunar cycle.
Although often referred to as “garden vetch” or “fragrant vetch,” fragrant vetch is not a member of the vetch family, but rather of the chickling pea genus.
An asteroid discovered in 1928 by German astronomer Karl Wilhelm Reinmuth was named after the vetch’s Latin name, Vicia.
In the language of flowers, vetch can stand for tenderness and familiarity on the one hand, but also for farewell on the other.