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Edible Flowers, Flowers

Butterfly Pea: How To Grow Color-Changing Teas


12 min read

This growing guide is all about the gorgeous Butterfly pea! Its botanical name is Clitoria ternatea. Most flowers are colored blue, but other species showcase a pink-purple color. Traditional use of this flower is for tea, food coloring, and for cosmetics. In its native habitat, the flowers are easy to gather during tropical forages. 

Pea flower tea is a traditional Ayurvedic medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties. Clitoria ternatea flowers produce flat pods that are great for eating fresh. Plus, the flowers have major blue anthocyanins, which are chemical compounds that react with acid to turn the tea into a well-known brilliant blue color. In the plant science world, cliotides (which are antimicrobial) were isolated from the heat-stable fraction of the flower extract. 

In India, they treat it as a holy flower and use it in daily rituals. It plays a big part in their economic botany, meaning how the people of India interact with this plant. The genus Clitoria comes from a Greek word relating to the female anatomy – which many say the flower resembles. Thus, a traditional medicine use for the flowers is to treat sexual ailments. 

These tropical plants with useful flowers are easy to grow when provided with the right environment. Even if you live in a cold climate, this plant can grow in containers and live indoors during the winters. Let’s delve into the details of growing the butterfly pea.  

Quick Care Guide

Butterfly pea
Butterfly pea. Source: douneika
Common NameButterfly pea, Asian pigeonwings, blue pea, bluebell vine, Darwin pea
Scientific NameClitoria ternatea
FamilyFabaceae
Height & Spread6-10 ft tall, 2-3 ft wide
LightFull sun
SoilSandy, slightly acidic, well-drained soil
WaterMedium watering, somewhat drought-tolerant
Pests & DiseasesSpider mites, aphids, root rot, leaf spot

All About Butterfly Pea

Butterfly pea plant
Butterfly pea plant. Source: Starr

The botanical name for the Butterfly pea is Clitoria ternatea. The genus Clitoria because the flowers resemble the female anatomy, and ternatea because they discovered the plant on Ternate Island. Other common names are Asian pigeonwings, Darwin pea, Blue pea, and Bluebell vine. 

This plant species originates in Africa and India. Thus, it is a perennial in tropical areas and an annual in areas with frost. It is a fast-growing ornamental plant that showcases an abundance of blooms from early summer into the fall.  

Once you’ve seen ternatea flowers, you’ll find they are easy to identify. It is a deciduous vine with smooth stems that are slender with trifoliate compound leaves. The leaves grow alternately along the stem and have a stipule at the base of each leaf. 

Clitoria ternatea flowers are the most striking feature of this plant. The flowers are a purple-blue color with light yellow markings. However, some varieties yield white flowers or vivid deep blue flowers. Flowers turn to seeds and form pods that hold six to ten seeds. 

In many parts of the world, the Ternatea flower is an invasive species if it escapes from cultivation. Thus, if you’re not growing it in your native environment, take care to keep it contained. Butterfly pea flowers are a popular ornamental, and the ternatea flowers, with their characteristic bluish color, are used as a natural food coloring and to dye natural fibers.  

Caring for Butterfly Pea Plants

Back of Clitoria ternatea flower
The back of a Clitoria ternatea flower. Source: Starr

The Butterfly pea is an easy-to-care-for plant, especially when you provide an environment it loves. It is found naturally in Southeast Asia, so it likes warm, humid climates. Let’s get into the details about growing this interesting plant with its beautiful flowers.   

Sun and Temperature

Full sun is ideal for the blue pea flower, but it will tolerate part sun as long as it receives 6-10 hours per day. Ideal temperatures are 65-82 degrees Fahrenheit. When grown in USDA hardiness zones 11-12, it is a perennial. At lower zones, it is annual since it’s sensitive to temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. 

A greenhouse is a perfect place to grow Clitoria ternatea flowers because it emulates its natural environment.  

Water and Humidity

Butterfly pea plants will tolerate a large amount of water as long as the water doesn’t sit on the roots. When you’re growing these flowers in a pot, keep the soil moist but not soggy. Water from the bottom of the plant in the morning to prevent introducing fungal issues. Continue to keep the soil moist even if you bring the plant in for the winter. 

You may notice you won’t have to water as often if the climate is more humid. Butterfly pea is at home with humidity and will be happier overall when provided with plenty of moisture. 

Soil

You can grow Butterfly pea flowers in many types of soil as long as they are well-drained. However, the best soil type is sandy. A slightly acidic to neutral soil with a pH range of 6.6-7.5 is ideal. Since these plants prefer plenty of water, using soil that drains well is vital. It won’t thrive in soggy soil and if the soil is too wet, it can attract fungal growth. 

Fertilizing Butterfly Pea

The Butterfly pea’s roots form nodes that perform a process called nitrogen fixing. These roots form a symbiotic relationship with the soil bacteria to convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen-rich plant material that can then be used for themselves. 

The first time you plant, mix in a balanced NPK fertilizer to give it a good head start. This will ensure a healthy plant with plenty of flowers. Then, after that, a potassium and phosphorus-rich liquid fertilizer after pruning is needed once or twice per year.     

Pruning Butterfly Pea

Prune your butterfly pea plant when it gets leggy to encourage bushy growth. Also, plan to deadhead the spent flowers if you want to extend how long it produces flowers. If you don’t deadhead the flowers, all the energy from the plant will go toward forming seed pods instead of flowers. Finally, give it a good pruning to allow it to rest until the next time it’s ready to bloom. 

Butterfly Pea Propagation

There are two methods of propagation with these flowers – by seed or cuttings. Butterfly pea flowers are finicky when starting from seed and it will take up to one year for your plant to bloom its lovely flowers. 

For the best success rate, soak the seeds for 24 hours and then place them in a damp paper towel to germinate. This way, you’ll know which seeds are viable, and you can then plant them in seed-starting soil. Keep the soil moist and provide warmth and light for approximately 45 days.

Propagating from cuttings provides a larger plant with flowers in a shorter amount of time. Choose a soft to semi-hard cutting from an established plant, then cut the stem 6-8 inches and remove all the leaves, leaving 2-4 from the top of the stem. Dip the stem in rooting hormone and place 2-3 inches of the cutting into moist vermiculite or sand. 

Put the cutting in a warm place that provides at least 6 hours of sunlight. Keep the soil moist, and it should form roots within 30-45 days. 

Repotting Butterfly Pea

When growing butterfly pea flowers in a container, it’s good to repot it once a year to improve soil quality or when they have doubled in size. Use fresh, moistened soil and transplant it to a container that is 2-3 inches larger than the previous container. 

Troubleshooting

Butterfly pea in tea
Butterfly pea flowers color liquids. Source: alberth2

Butterfly peas and their accompanying flowers aren’t prone to any serious diseases, but there are a few concerns to be aware of. This next section discusses how to deal with any growing problems, pest infestation, or diseases that may arise. 

Growing Problems

The biggest issue when growing Clitoria ternatea flowers is the amount of water it receives. Since it originates in tropical zones, it loves plenty of moisture. Well-draining soil is ideal for preventing the soil from becoming soggy. Also, it doesn’t enjoy being cold. Ideal temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring it inside when temperatures drop to keep it healthy and happy. 

Pests

Aphids or spider mites are the most severe pest types you will see affecting butterfly pea plants. Aphids are small brown, green, or yellow insects hanging out on the underside of leaves. They dine on the sap of the plant, slowly sucking the life from it. The leaves turn yellow and twisted, and the plant may stop growing. Neem oil doesn’t kill the aphids instantly but stops them from feeding until they die. 

Spider mites are minuscule, thus making them hard to see. Shake a leaf or the flowers over a piece of white paper to look for small dots moving around. Other signs are webbing on the plant and white stippling on the leaves. The mites suck on the plant, removing the contents from the plant cell and leaving behind silvery plant cells. 

Thus, the leaves and sometimes flowers look mottled with a yellowish or grayish cast. You can blast them off with water for small infestations and introduce or attract predatory mites to your garden. Prevention is the best line of defense. Keep your butterfly pea healthy and stress-free. Mites prefer drought-stressed plants and dry soil. 

Diseases

Fungal diseases such as leaf spot or root rot are the most commonly seen in butterfly pea. High amounts of water cause fungal issues, usually by over-watering or water remaining on the leaves. 

Leaf spot begins at the lower leaves and works its way up the plant. The leaves develop circular spots with a spore in the center and eventually fall off. To control this, place the plant where it receives plenty of air flow, water at the base of the plant to prevent splashing on the leaves and flowers, reduce humidity, and prune to increase air circulation. Fungicides should be used as a last resort. 

Root rot is caused by too much water (and sometimes fungi that thrive in the wet environment), usually from over-watering, the soil not draining, or not having adequate drain holes in the pot. Too much water causes the roots to die from lack of oxygen. They will appear mushy and begin to rot away. 

Prevention is the key, and if you catch it early enough, you can implement other measures such as repotting in a better-draining pot with well-draining soil and adjusting your watering schedule. When you repot, clip off any mushy and dead roots and all affected leaves and flowers, then rinse the root ball thoroughly. For serious fungal infections, spray the roots with a fungicide before planting in the new container with fresh soil.

Frequently Asked Questions

Clitorea ternatea
Clitorea ternatea. Source: douneika

Q: What is butterfly peas good for?

A: The butterfly pea plant is great as a tea additive. The blue organic colors of the flowers are a vibrant addition as a food color and a textile dye. Flowers are the portion usually consumed, and these have some traditional medicine use, but many enjoy the tea commonly mixed with other flavors such as pomegranate. 

Q: Is butterfly pea annual or perennial?

A: Butterfly pea is a perennial deciduous vine in warm climates. It is grown as an annual in areas that receive frost, and it’s a common revegetation species in its native habitat. 

Q: How long does it take to grow butterfly pea?

A: Butterfly pea is a fast-growing vine when provided with the right conditions. When grown from seed, it will flower within 90 days. 

Q: Can you grow butterfly pea flower indoors?

A: Yes, you can grow butterfly pea indoors. Grow them in pots to keep outdoors during the warm season and move indoors when the weather cools. Many grow this vine year-round in a greenhouse because this is a tropical plant. 

Q: Do butterfly peas need a trellis?

A: Since the butterfly pea is a vine, a trellis or some type of support is needed. This will ensure healthy growth and prevent fungal diseases. 

Q: What does butterfly pea taste like?

A: Many say the taste of Butterfly pea is like chamomile. Others say it tastes similar to a light green tea with earthy flavors. 

Q: Why does butterfly pea tea turn purple?

A: Butterfly pea contains anthocyanin, which is a pigment. Expose this pigment to something acidic, such as lemon juice, and it will react and turn bright blue.

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