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Beach dune pea patch

2009 September 24

When walking over a beach dune, the stabilizing vegetation is seldom closely observed. Photo by Ken Moore.

By Ken Moore.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife botanist Julie Moore, who was with the N.C. Natural Heritage Program in the 1970s, returned last week to speak at the annual meeting of the B.W. Wells Association ( at the Rockcliff Farm Heritage site in Falls Lake State Park. Julie shared memories of legendary NCSU botanist/plant ecologist B. W. Wells, who in 1932 wrote The Natural Gardens of North Carolina, a very readable scientific exploration of the state’s plant diversity from seacoast to mountain tops. (For more on B. W. Wells, see Flora, March 27, 2009)

In addition to memorable stories about B.W. and his wife, Maude, Julie described Well’s special gift for describing scientific facts in an understandable and enjoyable language for lay people. Crediting Wells, she added: “It’s not necessary to travel away from home to find extraordinary plants and nature. Interesting things are always present, at home or wherever you may be. We just need to know where and how to look!”

That was certainly the lesson I took away from last week’s beach gathering of friends on the Carolina coast. Whether crossing the dunes for fishing, swimming or shelling, folks’ attentions were focused ahead on the splashing surf. As is so characteristic of daily movements, whether at work or at play, we seldom take time to contemplate what surrounds us.

I was stopped in stride as I crossed over the lush dune-stabilizing vegetation sprawling beneath the easily observed sea oats. Taking “a closer look” by stooping down to practice belly botany, I discovered a vegetative sea of half-inch-size pink and cream-colored flowers and short upright stems of 2 ½-inch-long pea pods.

Referring to A Guide to Ocean Dune Plants Common to North Carolina by botany friend Jean Wilson Kraus, I quickly identified beach pea. It’s also called wild bean, and sand bean.

Strophostyles helvula is in the bean family. And even though it is an annual, it is a sturdy plant holding that dune sand in place during the growing season, and I suspect the lingering leathery leaves and root system contribute quite a bit of holding action in the winter months.

Observing those beach peas for several days, I noticed that the flowers open pink and turn creamy color later in the day after being pollinated by any number of flies, moths and butterflies, including painted ladies and cloudless sulphurs. Pea pods were emerging only from the creamy-colored flowers.


Beach pea flowers open pink and turn cream-colored after they have been pollinated. Peapods and the peas inside are edible. Photo by Ken Moore.

Jean described that the little peas can be cooked as vegetables. Since they were plentiful all over the dunes, I harvested a double handful. To onions and some spices sautéed in olive oil, I added those peas and water and cooked until tender. Beach peas made a tasty dish, I guess like anything prepared with onions and olive oil.

However, the labor-intensive shelling of those miniature peas suggests that we’ll not likely find them at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market any time soon.

But what fun to discover a wild bean patch while crossing a dune to fish and then to reflect that the original human inhabitants may actually have harvested those little dune peas for sustenance centuries ago.

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