Chamaecrista fasciculata is a type of annual legume that is native to eastern North America. It is a pioneer plant that favors newly disturbed ground and is one of the first things to grow after fire or other disaster. It fixes nitrogen in the soil while stabilizing it and prevents erosion without competing with other plants that require more time to take root. This is a vital characteristic for re-establishing plant material on prairies devastated by wildfire and this pretty little wildflower is one tough number when it comes to survival. However it quietly fades to a supporting role when more delicate flora start to grow. While it is an actual annual that completes its life cycle in one season, climate conditions are best in USDA Zones 3-9. It blooms through the summer with the peak happening about the first week in August, although the time may vary depending on latitude.
Known commonly as the partridge pea, the seeds attract many game birds, such as quail, turkey, dove and pheasant. Migrating songbirds also enjoy the pea-like seeds that fall to the ground each autumn in their small pods. This is also an especially attractive food for deer, but is harmful to cattle and horses if eaten in large quantities, so graze your livestock elsewhere when the field is covered in them. The stems, which can reach as much as 3 feet tall, are quite sturdy and often remain upright in the fields through the winter, giving much needed shelter to small mammals and ground-resting birds.
Partridge pea nectar is attractive to pollinators and is excellent for honey production. However, unlike the majority of plants, the nectar isn't inside the flower. Odd as it may seem, there is a small round gland at the base of the leaf axil where the nectar is produced. This is where you'll see the bees and butterflies collecting the goodness. Two types of pollen is produced in the flowers. One type is simply an attractant for the bees and the other type is the actual reproductive substance. Since the flowers do not produce nectar, it compensates by offering pollen to the bees which pollinate the bright yellow blossoms. When fields of the plant are in bloom, you will probably notice some of the flowers seem to be flying through the air. This is because the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly uses it as a host plant and it is almost the same color! There are a number of other butterflies that use it as well. Hairstreaks and some skippers prefer it too.
This plant is also known as the sensitive plant or sleepy plant since the leaves close when touched and at night. This is a common reaction among plants in the Caesalpinioidcae family, which includes Cassias and Sennas.
Native Americans included the partridge pea in their herbal pharmacy and used it for various ailments. They boiled the green pods and added honey to the resulting slimy substance for a cough syrup. Crushed leaves were bound on to wounds and cuts and a tea made from boiling the roots was used as a stimulant before games or war parties. However, I'm not finding evidence that they used any part of it as an actual food source or a natural dye.
Plant in prepared ground, in full sun or partial shade by scattering the seeds and then pressing them in to the soil. Left on their own, it may take up to 100 days for germination, so many people sow in late fall to take advantage of the colder winter weather. The seeds can be hastened along in warmer climates a bit by cold stratification. This is a process where equal parts damp potting mix is mixed with the seed and the whole container is kept in cold storage (your refrigerator) for 2 weeks. The temperature should be between 33 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit to properly stratify them. After this time, the seeds can be planted where they are to grow. After the blooming season is complete, a good show can be assured for the next season by lightly tilling or disking the plot. This distributes the seeds evenly and provides them with the clear area they need for proper germination. By doing this each season, an impressive stand will result, although this does destroy the overwintering stems that wildlife use for cover. If this is important to you, try tilling only part of your field each autumn.
Partridge peas serve many beneficial purposes. They fix nitrogen in the soil, are useful to control erosion and stabilize ground harmed by wildfire or floods. There are few pests or diseases that affect it other than the hungry caterpillars preparing to turn into butterflies.They are also a great source of nectar and pollen for our fragile honeybee population and as noted, a host plant for a number of butterflies, so if you have the space and a sunny area, they would be an excellent addition to a wildlife or reclamation garden.