Vicia hirsuta (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
List of species

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Vicia hirsuta (L.) S.F.Gray

Protologue: Nat. arr. Brit. pl. 2: 614 (1821).
Family: Papilionaceae (Leguminosae - Papilionoideae, Fabaceae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 14

Vernacular names

  • Hairy tare, tiny vetch, hairy vetch (En).
  • Ers velu, vesceron, vesce hérissée (Fr).
  • Cigerão (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

Vicia hirsuta is widely distributed in Europe, Asia and Africa. In Africa it is native from northern Africa through DR Congo and East Africa to Angola and South Africa. It is often introduced and naturalized elsewhere, e.g. in the Indian Ocean islands. Vicia hirsuta is sometimes cultivated as a pulse or as a fodder crop in India and was formerly grown in eastern Europe.


The seeds of Vicia hirsuta are collected from the wild and eaten cooked or roasted in Ethiopia. They were eaten as a famine food in Europe and Asia. The leaves and shoots are used as a vegetable in Ethiopia. Vicia hirsuta is also a forage.


The seeds of Vicia hirsuta contain trypsin inhibitors, but heating for 20 minutes at 100°C at pH 2.0 reduces the trypsin inhibiting activity by 50%. The seeds also contain the non-protein amino acid canavanine, a toxic arginine analogue.


  • Trailing or climbing annual herb up to 90 cm tall; stem glabrous or thinly hairy.
  • Leaves alternate, paripinnate, with 6–20 leaflets; stipules semisagittate, 2–15 mm × 1.5–2.5 mm, the upper part entire, the lower deeply divided into 2–3 filiform segments; petiole 0–5(–10) mm long, rachis usually terminating in a branched tendril; petiolules c. 0.5 mm long; leaflets linear or narrowly oblong, 4–20 mm × 1–3 mm, almost glabrous.
  • Inflorescence an axillary raceme 2–6 cm long, 2–7-flowered; peduncle 0.5–4 cm long.
  • Flowers bisexual, papilionaceous; pedicel 0.5–2 mm long; calyx 5-lobed, pubescent, with tube 1(–2.5) mm long and lobes 1.5–2.5 mm long; corolla white, rose or pale blue, standard obovate, 3–5 mm × 2 mm, wings and keel slightly shorter; stamens 10, 9 fused and 1 free; ovary superior, hairy, 1-celled, style short, curved, stigma small.
  • Fruit an oblong pod 6–10 mm × 3–4 mm, compressed, pilose, dehiscent, (1–)2(–3)-seeded.
  • Seeds globose, 2–3 mm in diameter, dark brown or mottled pale and dark brown.
  • Seedling with hypogeal germination.

Other botanical information

Vicia comprises about 120 species, mainly in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and South America, with a few species in Africa.

Vicia hirsuta is effectively nodulated by Rhizobium leguminosarum.


In East Africa Vicia hirsuta is found in grassland, scrub, forest margins and lava plains at 2000–3500 m altitude. Vicia hirsuta is a long-day plant. In many countries it is considered a weed.

Genetic resources

The largest germplasm collections of Vicia hirsuta are maintained at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), Aleppo, Syria (39 accessions) and the International Centre for Underutilised Crops, University of Southampton, Southampton, United Kingdom (32 accessions). In tropical Africa some accessions are held in Kenya (National Genebank of Kenya, Crop Plant Genetic Resources Centre, KARI, Kikuyu, 9 accessions) and Ethiopia (International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa, 5 accessions). In view of its wide distribution and unspecific habitat requirements Vicia hirsuta is not threatened with genetic erosion.


Vicia hirsuta is only occasionally used as a pulse. It is unlikely that its importance as a food crop will increase in the future. Still, more information would be useful on the nutritional quality of the seed and appropriate processing methods to eliminate its toxic compounds.

Major references

  • Enneking, D., 1995. The toxicity of Vicia species and their utilisation as grain legumes. 2nd Edition. Co-operative Research Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA) Occasional publication No 6. University of Western Australia, Nedlands, Australia. 119 pp.
  • Gillett, J.B., Polhill, R.M., Verdcourt, B., Schubert, B.G., Milne-Redhead, E., & Brummitt, R.K., 1971. Leguminosae (Parts 3–4), subfamily Papilionoideae (1–2). In: Milne-Redhead, E. & Polhill, R.M. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 1108 pp.
  • Hanelt, P. & Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (Editors), 2001. Mansfeld’s encyclopedia of agricultural and horticultural crops (except ornamentals). 1st English edition. Springer Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 3645 pp.
  • Thulin, M., 1983. Leguminosae of Ethiopia. Opera Botanica 68: 1–223.
  • Zemede Asfaw & Mesfin Tadesse, 2001. Prospects for sustainable use and development of wild food plants in Ethiopia. Economic Botany 55(1): 47–62.

Other references

  • Bohra, S.P. & Sharma, I.K., 1981. Screening of desert plants for protease inhibitors IV. Legume Research 4(2): 100–102.
  • Holm, L., Pancho, J.V. & Herberger, J.P., 1979. A geographical atlas of world weeds. John Wiley & Sons, New York, United States. 391 pp.
  • ILDIS, 2005. World database of Legumes, Version 9,00. International Legume Database & Information Service. [Internet] September 2005.
  • Mutch, L.A. & Young, J.P.W., 2004. Diversity and specificity of Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar viciae on wild and cultivated legumes. Molecular Ecology 13(8): 2435–2444.
  • Polhill, R.M., 1990. Légumineuses. In: Bosser, J., Cadet, T., Guého, J. & Marais, W. (Editors). Flore des Mascareignes. Famille 80. The Sugar Industry Research Institute, Mauritius, l’Office de la Recherche Scientifique Outre-Mer, Paris, France & Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 235 pp.
  • Sharma, B.K. & Lavania, G.S., 1977. Effect of photoperiod on the growth and flowering of Vicia hirsuta Gray and V. sativa L. Tropical Ecology 18(2): 131–137.
  • Southon, I.W., Bisby, F.A., Buckingham, J. & Harborne, J.B., 1994. Phytochemical dictionary of the Leguminosae. Volume 1: Plants and their constituents. Chapman and Hall, London, United Kingdom. 1051 pp.
  • 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.


  • M. Brink, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Brink, M., 2006. Vicia hirsuta (L.) Gray. In: Brink, M. & Belay, G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 30 November 2022.