This is a highly variable species, divided largely on amount of pubescense and flower size. Many branched stems rise 8-24 in. and bear pinnately compound leaves and compact to elongate clusters of pinkish-purple to reddish-pink, pea-like flowers.
Northern Sweet-vetch is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae), which includes trees, shrubs, herbs, and vines with compound or occasionally simple leaves and flowers usually in clusters. Flowers: 3 distinct types. Pea flower (most common) bilaterally symmetrical; calyx with 5 sepals more or less joined at base and forming a cup or tube; corolla with 1 broad upper petal (banner or standard), 2 lateral petals (wings), and 2 bottom petals (keel) joined by lower edges and shaped like prow of a boat; stamens usually 10, with 9 joined and 1 separate, surrounding ovary and hidden inside keel. Other 2 types: radially symmetrical, with conspicuous stamens (as in acacias); bilaterally symmetrical, without distinct banner and keel (as in sennas). Leaves: Usually alternate, rarely opposite; pinnately or palmately compound, or sometimes simple. Fruit: Usually a 1-chambered pod with 1 to many seeds, sometimes 2-chambered with several to many seeds; usually opening along 1-2 seams, sometimes not opening but separating into several 1-seeded segments. Taken as a single family, there are about 640 genera and 17,000 species. This enormous family, also known as the bean or legume family, includes many economically important genera: Peas belong to the genus Pisium; beans to Phaseolus; soybeans to Glycine; peanuts to Arachis; lentils to Lens; and chickpeas (garbanzos) to Cicer. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and clover species (Trifolium) provide forage for domestic livestock, but many other species are poisonous range weeds. Exotic hardwoods and gum arabic are provided by tropical trees belonging to this family, and numerous members are cultivated as handsome ornamentals. The traditional family name, Leguminosae, reflects some of the family’s importance (in Latin it refers to “plants with seedpods,” and in French légume means “vegetable”). The family is sometimes split into three smaller families, each distinguished by one of the three flower types: the Fabaceae, Mimosaceae, and Caesalpiniaceae. The fruit, an important feature, is similar in all three.
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