Sunshine and buffalo beans.

A cold, wet, windy May has departed, leaving a cold, wet, windy June in its wake (to be fair, we’re only on Day 2), but we welcomed a brief respite this past Tuesday, with the appearance of sunshine and balmy warmth.  (Okay, okay, it was  only plus 15 C, but it felt like the tropics!).  So my husband and I went fishing, and while the trout were playing hard to get (who would blame them?), I amused myself by watching gigantic bumblebees rumble around in amongst the buffalo beans growing alongside the shoreline.

Thermopsis rhombifolia (buffalo beans, syn. golden peas, buffalo flowers, golden banner) are everywhere in southern Alberta right now!   These sunny yellow flowers on distinctive “legume”-like stems (think peas, but much shorter, only about 30 cm tall) also dot the slopes of Calgary’s Nose Hill, as I discovered recently.  They’re radiant and cheerful…and stand out like bolts of light against our moody grey skyline.  Apparently the Blackfoot Indians once used dye made from their flowers to colour textiles, and they called the plant “buffalo beans” because the flowers appeared around the same time that the buffalo returned to their grazing grounds each year.  Not sure if buffalo have the stomachs to eat the plants, however – there is some dispute as to just how poisonous buffalo beans are, and the general consensus is to leave the plants well enough alone.   There are reports that both cattle and humans have died from eating the plant.  A close relative of buffalo beans, Thermopsis montana (known as poison-bean – no monkeying around with that moniker, is there?) is definitely poisonous and should be avoided at all costs.  Isn’t it funny how some of the prettiest plants are also the most dangerous?

Buffalo beans also produce distinctive seed pods as befitting a member of the bean family (Fabaceae) and it will be interesting to uncover those later in the season.

Enjoy the sunshine, however you may receive it!

***

Mucuna pruriens, commonly known as velvet bean or cowitch, is a plant native to tropical Africa, India and the Caribbean – and it also goes by the nickname “buffalo beans.”   (I’m assuming they’re referring to water buffalo and not our bison).  A pretty plant with purple flowers and hairy orange seed pods, apparently it will also give you the most severe case of contact dermatitis you’ll ever encounter.

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