Lathyrus sativus (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
List of species

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distribution in Africa (planted)
1, flowering and fruiting branch; 2, seeds. Source: PROSEA
flowering plant
flower and fruits
dry fruits
field with ripening crop

Lathyrus sativus L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 2: 730 (1753).
Family: Papilionaceae (Leguminosae - Papilionoideae, Fabaceae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 14

Vernacular names

  • Grass pea, chickling pea, chickling vetch, white pea (En).
  • Gesse, gesse blanche, gesse commune, pois carré, lentille d’Espagne (Fr).
  • Chícharo, chícharo comun, sincho (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

The origin of Lathyrus sativus is unknown. Records exist of wild Lathyrus sativus plants in Iraq, but it is not clear if these are truly wild or escapes from cultivation. Lathyrus sativus is perhaps a derivative from Lathyrus cicera L., which occurs wild in southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia and is sometimes grown there. Domestication of grass pea probably took place in the Balkan around 6000 BC. Remains of Lathyrus sativus dating back to 2000–1500 BC have been recorded from India. Nowadays grass pea is widely cultivated in large parts of Asia (especially Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and the Middle East), southern Europe and northern Africa, and to a lesser extent in America, Australia and South Africa. In tropical Africa it is mainly grown in Ethiopia, but also in Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola and Mauritius.


In Ethiopia and Eritrea grass pea seeds are mainly consumed in the form of sauces (‘wot’); ‘shiro wot’ (sauce made of flour) and ‘kik wot’ (sauce made of hulled split seeds) are eaten together with ‘injera’ (a pancake-like unleavened bread). Boiled grass pea seeds (‘nifro’) are also consumed in most areas, whereas ‘kitta’ (an unleavened bread) made from grass pea seeds is consumed mainly during times of acute food shortage. In India the seeds are sometimes boiled whole, but are most often processed into dhal. The flour, made by grinding either the whole or split seeds, is sold as ‘besan’. In Bangladesh ‘roti’ made out of grass pea flour is a staple for landless labourers. In India grass pea is sometimes used to adulterate more expensive pulses, such as chickpea or pigeon pea. Care should be taken in the consumption of grass pea seeds, as excessive consumption leads to a neurological disorder in people and animals, called lathyrism and characterized by paralysis of the lower limbs. In many countries grass pea seeds are used as animal feed, e.g. as an ingredient in pig starter and grower diets.

In Asia immature pods are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, or are boiled, salted and consumed as a snack. Young vegetative parts are cooked as a green vegetable; they are also dried for off-season use as a vegetable. Young grass pea plants are used as fodder for cattle or for grazing in many countries. The stems and chaff remaining after harvest are often the most important reason for growing the crop in Asia. As fodder, the plants can be eaten green or as hay; they are not suitable for silage. Grass pea is grown as a green manure, e.g. in Australia and Canada. Oil from the seeds is used medicinally as a powerful cathartic.

Production and international trade

According to estimates India produced about 0.8 million t grass pea seeds per year from 1.5 million ha in the mid 1990s, whereas production was lower in Bangladesh (175,000 t from 240,000 ha) and Pakistan (45,000 t from 130,000 ha). In the late 1990s production in Ethiopia was estimated at 105,000 t from 142,000 ha. As a food grain, grass pea is traditionally traded within the region of production, and it does not enter international trade.


The composition of whole grass pea seed per 100 g edible portion is: water 8.4 g, energy 1457 kJ (348 kcal), protein 27.4 g, fat 1.1 g, carbohydrate 59.8 g, fibre 7.3 g, Ca 127 mg, P 410 mg and Fe 10.0 mg (Leung, Busson & Jardin, 1968). Grass pea is highly deficient in methionine and tryptophan. Raw whole seeds contain 41% starch on a dry matter basis; the starch granules are oval and on average 25 μm long and 17 μm wide.

The neurological disorder lathyrism is caused by the water-soluble non-protein amino acid ODAP (β-N-oxalyl-L-α,β-diaminopropionic acid), also known as BOAA (β- N-oxalylamino-L-alanine) and OAP (L-3-oxalylamino-2-aminopropionic acid). ODAP is present in all parts of the plant and affects various parts of the central nervous system, disrupting neurotransmission and thus impairing muscular activity. The onset of lathyrism can be slow or sudden, and is often indicated by a feeling of heaviness and pain in the lower limbs. Lathyrism is often irreversible, but not fatal. Lathyrism seems to occur when food ratios containing at least 25% grass pea are consumed continuously over 1.5–6 months and may then affect up to 5% of the population. Outbreaks of lathyrism often occur during near-famine conditions that force people to rely too heavily on grass pea. The ODAP content of grass pea seeds typically ranges from 0.1–1.4(–2.5) g per 100 g seed. ODAP levels are not only genetically determined, but also highly influenced by growing conditions. In general, soaking and boiling reduce ODAP levels in the seeds, and this effect is enhanced if water is changed after soaking and during cooking. When the seeds are ground into flour, which is then used in baking or cooking, ODAP may not be removed. Unfortunately, effective detoxification treatments often also result in decrease of nutritional quality. Other antinutritional factors in grass pea include trypsin inhibitors, tannins, lectins, phytate and oligosaccharides.

Grass pea hay contains: water 14.6%, protein 9.9%, fat 1.9%, fibre 36.5%, nitrogen-free extract 31.0% and ash 6.1%. The seeds of cultivars with up to 0.22 g ODAP per 100 g seed could be included in the diets of growing chicks at a rate of 400 g grass pea seeds per kg feed without negative effects on weight gain or fat or protein digestibility.


  • Much-branched, erect, straggling or climbing, glabrous annual herb; stem slender, quadrangular, winged, up to 90(–170) cm long; taproot well-developed.
  • Leaves alternate, 2- or 4-foliolate, ending in a simple or branched tendril; stipules prominent, leaf-like, narrowly triangular, with a smaller but similarly shaped basal appendage and often with a small tooth between the lobes; petiole mostly winged, (1–)1.5–2.5(–3.5) cm long; leaflets sessile, narrowly elliptical-oblong, (3–)4–5(–7.5) cm × 3–5(–13) mm, cuneate at base, acute or acuminate at apex.
  • Flowers solitary in leaf axils, bisexual, papilionaceous, pedicel with joint, lower part (1–)3–3.5 (–5) cm long, upper part (2–)5–7(–8) mm long; calyx campanulate, tube c. 3 mm long, lobes 5, almost equal, narrowly triangular, 3–6 mm long; corolla blue, reddish-purple, red, pink or white, standard erect and spreading, very broadly obovate, c. 15 mm × 18 mm, clawed, retuse at top, wings broadly obovate, c. 14 mm × 8 mm, clawed, with auricle, keel slightly twisted, boat-shaped, c. 10 mm × 7 mm, clawed, with 2 auricles; stamens 10, 9 united and 1 free; ovary superior, sessile, c. 6 mm long, style abruptly upturned, c. 7 mm long, stigma spoon-shaped.
  • Fruit an oblong, flattened pod (1.5–)2.5–4.5(–5.5) cm × 0.5–2 cm, upper margin 2-winged, shortly beaked, glabrous, (1–)2–5(–7)-seeded.
  • Seeds wedge-shaped, 4–7 mm in diameter, white, pale green, grey or brown, marbled; hilum elliptical.
  • Seedling with hypogeal germination.

Other botanical information

Lathyrus comprises about 150 species, mainly in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and South America, with a few species in Africa. Lathyrus sativus is placed in section Lathyrus along with about 30 other annual or perennial species. Based on crossability and cytological evidence, Lathyrus amphicarpos Gouan and Lathyrus cicera L. have been placed in the secondary gene pool of grass pea. More recently, successful crosses between Lathyrus sativus and Lathyrus pseudocicera Pamp. have been made. Apart from Lathyrus sativus, other Lathyrus species cultivated in Ethiopia are the ornamental Lathyrus odoratus L. and the forage Lathyrus aphaca L.

Infraspecific classification is mainly based on colour of flowers, markings on pods and size and colour of seeds. In general, white seed is most popular for human consumption. The level of infraspecific variation for RAPD markers is low compared to other grain legumes such as lentil and pea. Based on isozyme analysis variation was found to be highest in western Asia and northern Africa.

Growth and development

Germination of grass pea seeds is most rapid around 20°C. Flowering time is 1.5–4 months after sowing. The floral biology of grass pea favours self-pollination (anthers usually dehisce before full opening of the flower), but there are many records of substantial outcrossing (up to 28%). Total crop duration is 3–6 months. Grass pea effectively nodulates with Rhizobium leguminosarum.


Grass pea is grown successfully in regions with an average annual rainfall of 400–650 mm/year and an average temperature of 10–25°C. It withstands heavy rains in early growth stages and prolonged drought during grain-filling. It grows well in the subtropics as a winter crop. Grass pea can be grown on a wide range of soil types, including poor soils and heavy clays. It tolerates waterlogging and moderate salinity. In Ethiopia grass pea is often grown in the dry season on residual soil moisture in heavy black clay soils at 1700–2700 m altitude. In India grass pea is grown as a cold-season crop up to 1200 m altitude.

Propagation and planting

Grass pea is propagated by seed. The 1000-seed weight ranges from 30–300 g. In Ethiopia it does not require a fine seedbed; 1–2 ploughings are enough. The average seed rate is normally 45–60 kg/ha for a sole crop, and about 35 kg/ha when intercropped. Seeds that may have been soaked in water overnight are broadcast or drilled in furrows. Plant densities of 200,000–250,000 plants/ha are common for grass pea. In Ethiopia grass pea is usually sown in September–November and harvested in January–April.

Grass pea is grown as a sole crop or intercropped, e.g. with barley, linseed or chickpea. In many countries grass pea is produced in rice-based cropping systems before the rice crop or alternately with a rice crop. In India grass pea is often grown as a relay crop: it is broadcast into a standing rice crop about 2 weeks before the rice harvest and left to grow on the residual moisture.


Grass pea often receives hardly any attention after sowing, although for optimum yields it should be kept reasonably free from weeds. In a well-prepared field, the crop comes up as a thick mass over the entire surface, smothering out weeds. Grass pea is not normally fertilized, but atmospheric nitrogen fixation rates of 25–50 kg/ha have been recorded. In Ethiopia grass pea is grown in rotation after barley or sometimes after a pulse crop, such as pea or chickpea, which has been sown in April and harvested in July.

Diseases and pests

The main diseases of grass pea are powdery mildew (Erysiphe pisi) and downy mildew (Peronospora spp.), but the latter not in Ethiopia. Rust (Uromyces fabae) and Fusarium wilt (Fusarium oxysporum) have been recorded from Ethiopia. Faba bean necrotic yellows virus (FBNYV) has been observed on grass pea in Ethiopia; it is transmitted by the aphids Acyrtosiphon pisum and Aphis craccivora. In host-range studies grass pea was found to be susceptible to pea seed-borne mosaic virus (PSbMV). Insect pests of grass pea include aphids and thrips. The pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) is the main pest of grass pea in Ethiopia.


Harvesting of grass pea should be done when leaves turn yellow and pods turn grey, to avoid shattering. The plants are pulled out by hand or cut with a sickle near the base. They are then stacked and allowed to dry for 7–8 days in the field or on the threshing floor.


The average seed yield of grass pea is 350–700 kg/ha; in Ethiopia it is about 700 kg/ha. Yield trials conducted recently in various countries recorded yield levels of 1500–3000 kg/ha.

Handling after harvest

Grass pea pods are threshed by animal trampling or by beating with sticks, after which the seed is winnowed and cleaned. The seeds may be dried for a few days before storage.

Genetic resources

ICARDA (Aleppo, Syria) holds a Lathyrus collection of about 1880 accessions, of which 1560 belong to Lathyrus sativus. Large grass pea germplasm collections are also kept in France (IBEAS, Laboratoire d’Ecologie Moleculaire, Université de Pau; 1810 accessions), Australia (Australian Temperate Field Crops Collection, Horsham, Victoria; 844 accessions), Russia (N.I. Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry, St. Petersburg; 688 accessions), Bangladesh (Plant Genetic Resources Centre, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Joydebpur, Gazipur; 584 accessions) and the United States (USDA/ARS Western Regional Plant Introduction Station, Pullman, Washington; 248 accessions). In tropical Africa germplasm collections are kept in Ethiopia (197 accessions at the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation, Addis Ababa; 13 accessions at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa) and Kenya (National Genebank of Kenya, Crop Plant Genetic Resources Centre, KARI, Kikuyu; 4 accessions). Grass pea seeds show orthodox seed storage behaviour.


The major objective in grass pea breeding is reduction of ODAP levels, which is the most feasible method of producing a safe crop. Secondly, increasing the genetic yield potential is an important goal. Other breeding objectives are the incorporation of disease resistance and increase of seed size, earlier maturity and a higher harvest index. Lines with moderate resistance to powdery mildew have been identified. In Ethiopia a large number of accessions and breeding lines introduced from ICARDA are resistant to powdery mildew.

Improvement has been slow in grass pea. High-yielding improved cultivars low in ODAP and with resistance against biotic and abiotic stresses have not been released in Africa. Some attempts to provide improved cultivars with low ODAP content have been made in India. In Chile and Bangladesh some promising lines have also been identified with low ODAP and high yield. Recently, of the 13 lines with low ODAP content identified in Ethiopia, three lines introduced from ICARDA have consistently shown low ODAP and reasonable yield over three years. However, the substantial outcrossing rate in grass pea has limited the progress in identifying stable lines with low ODAP content; seeds of selected lines must be multiplied in isolation and be provided to farmers every year.

Indirect somatic embryogenesis (from callus) is possible in grass pea using shoot tips, axillary buds, and stem, leaf and root explants. Direct somatic embryogenesis has been achieved from immature leaflets and nodal segments. Somaclones with low ODAP combined with high yield have been developed. Other biotechnological approaches applied in breeding for low ODAP grass pea types include incorporation into grass pea of ODAP-degrading genes from microbes, and application of antisense technology to silence the genes involved in the bio-synthesis of ODAP. Transgenic grass pea plants have been produced using bombardment of explants with DNA-coated particles. Genetic linkage maps of the Lathyrus sativus genome have been developed using various molecular markers (RAPD, STMS and STS/CAPS), and quantitative trait loci associated with resistance to ascochyta blight (Mycosphaerella pinodes) have been located for possible future transfer of this trait into the closely related Pisum sativum L.


Grass pea is the least preferred among the common food legumes, but it has a number of features that make it attractive particularly to resource-poor farmers, because of its adaptation to harsh conditions such as drought and waterlogging. Therefore, grass pea is a useful crop for dry and poor soils and a rescue crop when other crops have failed. However, the presence in the seeds of the toxin ODAP is a serious disadvantage, as it poses a real danger to the health of consumers. Cultivation of grass pea is often discouraged or has sometimes even been forbidden, e.g. in certain states of India, but this has not been successful due to the absence of cheap alternatives. The first priority in grass pea breeding therefore is the development of high-yielding cultivars with low ODAP content, which can safely be consumed. Also, more research is needed on effective detoxification methods without reducing the nutritional value of the seeds.

Major references

  • Campbell, C.G., 1997. Grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops No 18. Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, Gatersleben, Germany / International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. 92 pp.
  • Campbell, C.G., Mehra, R.B., Agrawal, S.K., Chen, Y.Z., Abdel-Moneim, A.M., Khawaja, H.I.T., Yadov, C.R., Tay, J.U. & Araya, W.A., 1994. Current status and future strategy in breeding grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Euphytica 73: 167–175.
  • Jansen, P.C.M., 1989. Lathyrus sativus L. In: van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Somaatmadja, S. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 1. Pulses. Pudoc, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 50–51.
  • Kay, D.E., 1979. Food legumes. Crops and Product Digest No 3. Tropical Products Institute, London, United Kingdom. 435 pp.
  • Kearney, J. & Smartt, J., 1995. The grasspea. In: Smartt, J. & Simmonds, N.W. (Editors). Evolution of crop plants. 2nd Edition. Longman, London, United Kingdom. pp. 266–270.
  • Kislev, M.E., 1989. Origins of the cultivation of Lathyrus sativus and L. cicera (Fabaceae). Economic Botany 43(2): 262–270.
  • Knight, R. (Editor), 2000. Linking research and marketing opportunities for pulses in the 21st century. Proceedings of the third international food legumes research conference. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Netherlands. 800 pp.
  • Muehlbauer, F.J. & Kaiser, W.J. (Editors), 1994. Expanding the production and use of cool season food legumes: a global perspective of persistent constraints and of opportunities and strategies for further increasing the productivity and use of pea, lentil, faba bean, chickpea and grasspea in different farming systems. Proceedings of the second international food legume research conference on pea, lentil, faba bean, chickpea, and grasspea, Cairo, Egypt, 12–16 April 1992. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Netherlands. 991 pp.
  • Smartt, J., 1984. Evolution of grain legumes. I. Mediterranean pulses. Experimental Agriculture 20: 275–296.
  • Westphal, E., 1974. Pulses in Ethiopia, their taxonomy and agricultural significance. Agricultural Research Reports 815. Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, Wageningen, Netherlands. 263 pp.

Other references

  • Akalu, G., Tufvesson, F., Jönsson, C. & Nair, B.M., 1998. Physico-chemical characteristics and functional properties of starch and dietary fibre in grass pea seeds. Starch 50: 374–382.
  • Barna, K.S. & Mehta, S.L., 1995. Genetic transformation and somatic embryogenesis in Lathyrus sativus. Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology 4: 67–71.
  • Chowdhury, M.A. & Slinkard, A.E., 2000. Genetic diversity in grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 47: 163–169.
  • Croft, A.M., Pang, E.C.K. & Taylor, P.W.J., 1999. Molecular analysis of Lathyrus sativus L. (grasspea) and related Lathyrus species. Euphytica 107(3): 167–176.
  • Dadi, L., Teklewold, H., Aw-Hassan, A., Abdel Moneim, A.M. & Bejiga, G., 2003. The socio economic factors affecting grass pea consumption and the incidence of lathyrism in Ethiopia. Integrated Natural Resource Management: Technical Research Report Series, No 4. ICARDA, Aleppo, Syria. 55 pp.
  • Getahun, H., Lambein, F. & Vanhoorne, M., 2002. Neurolathyrism in Ethiopia: assessment and comparison of knowledge and attitude of health workers and rural inhabitants. Social Science & Medicine 54: 1513–1524.
  • Getahun, H., Lambein, F., Vanhoorne, M. & van der Stuyft, P., 2002. Pattern and associated factors of the neurolathyrism epidemic in Ethiopia. Tropical Medicine and International Health 7(2): 118–124.
  • Hanbury, C.D., White, C.L., Mullan, B.P. & Siddique, K.H.M., 2000. A review of the potential of Lathyrus sativus L. and L. cicera L. grain for use as animal feed. Animal Feed Science and Technology 87: 1–27.
  • ILDIS, 2002. World database of Legumes, Version 6,05. International Legume Database & Information Service. [Internet] September 2004.
  • Leung, W.-T.W., Busson, F. & Jardin, C., 1968. Food composition table for use in Africa. FAO, Rome, Italy. 306 pp.
  • Mehta, S.L., Ali, K. & Barna, K.S., 1994. Somaclonal variation in a food legume - Lathyrus sativus. Journal of Plant Biochemistry & Biotechnology 3: 73–77.
  • Mehta, S.L. & Santha, I.M., 1996. Plant biotechnology for development of non-toxic strains of Lathyrus sativus. In: Arora, R.K., Mathur, P.N., Riley, K.W. & Adham, Y. (Editors). 1996. Lathyrus genetic resources in Asia: proceedings of a regional workshop, 27–29 December 1995, Indira Gandhi Agricultural University, Raipur, India. IPGRI Office for South Asia, New Delhi, India. pp. 129–138.
  • Mondal, A.K., Parui, S., Nandi, J.B. & Mandal, S., 1998. Studies on the effect of temperature on the germination of seeds. Indian Journal of Plant Physiology 3(2): 168–171.
  • Rotter, R.G., Marquardt, R.R. & Campbell, C.G., 1991. The nutritional value of low lathyrogenic Lathyrus (Lathyrus sativus) for growing chicks. British Poultry Science 32: 1055–1067.
  • Skiba, B., Ford, R. & Pang, E.C.K., 2004. Construction of a linkage map based on a Lathyrus sativus backcross population and preliminary investigation of QTLs associated with resistance to ascochyta blight. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 109(8): 1726–1735.
  • Spencer, P.S., 1994. Human consumption of plant materials with neurotoxic potential. Acta Horticulturae 375: 341–348.
  • Tekle Haimanot, R., Abegaz, B., Wuhib, E., Kassina, A., Kidane, Y., Kebede, N., Alemu, T. & Spencer, P.S., 1993. Nutritional and neuro-toxicological surveys of Lathyrus sativus consumption in northern Ethiopia. In: Yusuf, H.K.M. & Lambein, F. (Editors). Lathyrus sativus and human lathyrism: progress and prospects. Proceedings of the 2nd International Colloquium Lathyrus/Lathyrism, Dhaka, 10–12 December, 1993. University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh. pp. 41–45.
  • Thulin, M., 1989. Fabaceae (Leguminosae). In: Hedberg, I. & Edwards, S. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia. Volume 3. Pittosporaceae to Araliaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 49–251.
  • Wuletaw, T. & Endashaw, B., 2003. Variation and association of morphological and biochemical characters in grass pea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Euphytica 130(3): 315–324.
  • Yunus, A.G. & Jackson, M.T., 1991. The genepools of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Plant Breeding 106: 319–328.

Sources of illustration

  • Jansen, P.C.M., 1989. Lathyrus sativus L. In: van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Somaatmadja, S. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 1. Pulses. Pudoc, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 50–51.


  • S.S. Yadav, Division of Genetics, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi 110012, India
  • G. Bejiga, Green Focus Ethiopia, P.O. Box 802, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Correct citation of this article

Yadav, S.S. & Bejiga, G., 2006. Lathyrus sativus L. In: Brink, M. & Belay, G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 8 February 2023.