Pride Of California: A Wild Pea Aristocrat

There are a few wildflowers which belong to the plant aristocracy. Lathyrus splendens, Pride-of-California or Campo Pea, is surely deserving of high regard. Why? Just for one thing: it’s a unique black-crimson color.

Only the deepest, dark red rose possesses this marvelous, glowing shade. But Pride-of-California dangles masses of this velvety crimson among branches of small shrubs with dazzling effect to all who behold it.

Wild PeaPin

Other Species of Lathyrus

In Southern California, there are several other species of Lathyrus, one of them close to the very restricted natural home of Campo Pea. Their general appearance and habit are much alike, until at flowering time from late March through April and even May with June stragglers, one is startled into gasps of wonder at the feast of glowing beauty.

L. splendens choose steep rocky hillsides of between 3000-3500 feet elevation, along the southern border of San Diego County and Baja, California adjacent to this. There the sun is hot and the soil dries in Spring and Summer.

Less Attractive Foliage 

Consequently, the foliage, which is neat and light green, becomes less attractive during its short resting period until new stems arise with the onset of Fall and Winter rains. Typical pinnate leaflets of either linear or elliptic-ovate shape end with a tendril which enables the vine to pull itself up to the clear, bright sunlight through the branches of its favorite support.

While collecting pods from hundreds of the plants I have observed with some interest that more than 99% of them choose Quercus dumosa, or California scrubs oak, for their strong-armed companions. Possibly these have just the right amount of shade for the slow beginnings of the baby plants.

Handling Perennial Lathyrus Types

As for the culture of Lathyrus splendens: anyone who has handled the perennial types of Lathyrus knows that they have long, deep-seated roots which resent disturbance at any age. For propagating, it is recommended that seed be used.

Use small pots, 2-4” inches, and plant one or two seeds about one-half inch deep in each pot of any neutral, porous soil. First soak these seeds in hot water for one to several days, then plant immediately. Keep lightly shaded and moist until sprouts show. Give more light and sun, but do not allow the pots to dry out.

Growth Is Rather Slow At First

Compared with garden or sweet peas, but this is soon compensated for in ever-increasing size and number of 4-8 foot long climbing stems. When large enough, but before they become rootbound, transplant to a permanent position in full sun without disturbing the root ball. It does not seem too important what time of year to start the seeds.

Let your climatic conditions govern that. With a good start, one might expect some flowers even in the second season ó surely by the third. They would be superb along a sunny fence or low stonewall. After the first year, they need no attention whatsoever.

Fair Deep Transplanting

An experienced grower of Southern California natives tells me that he does not have many reports on the behavior of this plant elsewhere in the country. Several vines that he planted quite a distance farther north have bloomed every year for the past 10 years, and note this, have held their remarkable, dark color.

The flowers themselves are huge, between 1 1/2 to 2” inches long, with the banner bent back on nearly a straight line with the keel, like very wide-open mouths. There are about a dozen of these to each big truss on long stems. A bouquet is something to work for!

If transplanted fairly deeply, and mulched for the coldest Winter regions, it should prove hardy. For that first year of infancy, it is worth watching more closely.

Lathyrus Pods

Enough seeds will be available this season to supply the constant demand. For a reason not apparent, this species is not always a good “seeder.” It ripens its long, roundish pods irregularly over a very long period.

Large, healthy wild plants which provide glorious displays of Spring flowers more often than not are later completely barren of seed pods. Unless one lives near enough to examine their stage of maturity at least weekly for several months, it will remain one of the scarce items.

Birds And Mother Nature Job

Unlike many kinds, Lathyrus pods must be collected when “just right.” Birds and Mother Nature are on the job at that right moment also; in fact, the birds get there first. Often they pick out every seed just before the day of thoroughly dry condition, when a forceful explosion twists the halves of the pods in opposite directions, widely scattering the black and olive-speckled seeds. 

Nature continues these “squeeze” tactics until each brown pod is tightly curled like a double pig’s tail. The wise birds cut into the sides of the slightly immature pods, and do a thorough job of cleaning up many a promising vine that one has reached after arduous climbing and crawling, all for nothing.

Once disseminated, the hungry hordes of the “understory” world have their turn on the ground. But it seems there are just enough seeds escaping to ensure future replacements of these very long-lived plants.

All who have seen Pride-of-California love it intensely, and readily understand this popular name as well as the one given for the village nearest its habitat.

44659 by Elsie Webb Cisler