Swainsona formosa, or Sturt’s Desert Pea, is one of Australia’s best known plants, famous for its distinctive blood-red leaf-like flowers, each with a bulbous black centre, or “boss”. Its flowers are so different from its relatives that it is almost unrecognisable as a member of the pea family.
Sturt’s Desert Pea is the floral emblem of South Australia. It is protected in South Australia, where collection of the flowers or plants on Crown Land is illegal without a permit.
The flower is referred to as the ‘Flower of Blood’ by some Koori groups. This title comes from the legend which tells of a young woman who escaped marriage to an elderly gentleman by eloping with her younger lover. The shunned man and some of his friends tracked the couple down after some years and killed them both, as well as the relatives with whom they had lived. Sometime later, the old man returned to the place where he had slain the lovers and found the ground covered with the scarlet flowers that we know as the Sturt’s Desert pea.
This wildflower grows prolifically in harsh environments and it is well adapted to life as a desert plant. In its natural habitat (arid woodland, open plains), after flowering it dies, leaving behind hard-coated seeds. Later on the seeds are slowly worn down and cracked by high temperatures or worn with sand abrasion ready to germinate with the first rains. Flowers are bird-pollinated in the wild.
There is a natural pure white form of Sturt’s Desert Pea, as well as hybridised varieties which can have flowers ranging from blood scarlet, to pink and even pale cream, with variously coloured central bosses. Several tricolour variants have been recorded.
Most forms of the plant are low-growing or prostrate, however in the Pilbara region of north-western Australia varieties growing as tall as 2 metres have been observed.
Australian Aborigines eat the roasted seeds, or make cakes by grinding the seeds and then baking them. However, the seeds contain trypsin inhibitors. Trypsin is an essential enzyme which breaks down proteins during digestion, so these seeds may not be ideal for eating.
The desert pea makes a great cut flower. If you pick the flowers as they first open they will last approximately 30 days in water.
In cultivation the desert pea is regarded as difficult and few people attempt to grow it. However it can be grown successfully in many areas if treated as an annual. Success is often reported when the plant is grown in a deep container in a sunny, frost-free position.
Known to grow in such USA states as Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Texas.
photo by Andrew Alderson
Common names: Sturt’s desert pea, Dampier’s clianthus, Beautiful Donia, Australian glory pea, Glory pea
Synonyms: Clianthus dampieri, Clianthus formosus, Clianthus speciosus, Willdampia formosa
Cultivars: Tricolour variants: Marginata (white keel with red margin, red flag and purple-black boss), Tricolour (white keel, red flag, pink boss), Elegans (white flag and keel, both with red margins)
Native: to the arid regions of central and north-western Australia, and its range extends into all mainland Australian states with the exception of Victoria.
Plant type: Evergreen, Tender Perennial, Annual
Hardiness: USDA 9-11
Light: Full Sun
Soil: Sandy, or if grown in pots – usually pine bark and sand potting mix
Moisture: Drought-tolerant, Dry (wet soil will kill it)
Flowering period: Late Spring, Summer
Flower Color: Scarlet (Dark Red), Dark Purple/Black, White, Pale Cream, Pink, Yellow
Repeat Bloomer: No
Fragrant: Tell us if you know
Height: 15 – 30 cm (6 – 12 in)
Spread: 90 – 120 cm (36 – 48 in)
Time to plant: Spring
Propagation: from seed – soak the pea seeds in hot (just off-boiling) water for over five hours or overnight (don’t use seeds that don’t swell and those that float) or pretreat seeds by scarification (using sheets of sandpaper); from cuttings or by grafting
Uses: Indoors, Suitable for xeriscaping, Containers, Ornamental
Fertilizer: native slow release fertiliser
Has Thorns: No
Toxicity: Although several species of Swainsona are toxic to livestock, Swainsona formosa is reported to be grazed sparingly with no ill-effects.
– Keep the plant sheltered from strong winds.
– Sturt’s desert peas do not tolerate disturbance of their roots. Seedlings will struggle to survive if you transplant them, so plant the seed exactly where you want it to grow.
– Sturt’s desert peas love the really hot weather and dry soil. Can withstand extreme heat and sunshine, as well as light frosts.
– If grown in pots, use a wider pot, rather than a deeper pot.
– The small seeds have a long viability, and can germinate after many years.
Do you grow Swainsona formosa (Sturt’s Desert Pea) in your garden? What is your experience with this plant? Please share with other fellow gardeners in the comments below!
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Safety notes: This website is for educational purposes only and is not medical advice, and please check with your doctor before using plants if you are pregnant, using medications or have other health conditions.