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Sturt’s Desert Pea

Swainsona formosa

Sturt’s Desert Pea
Swainsona formosa
Common name
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Sturt’s Desert Pea • Swainsona formosa

This is one of Australia’s most recognisable prostrate ground covering plants, growing between 30-40 cm high and able to cover several square metres of ground. The Sturt’s Desert Pea is a member of the pea family, Fabaceae and was included in the original collection made in 1699 by William Dampier on Rosemary Island in the Dampier Archipelago (off the north-western coast of Australia) where he collected a specimen from:

“a creeping vine that runs along the ground... and the blossom like a bean blossom, but much larger and of a deep red colour looking very beautiful”

The specimen, now housed in the Sherardian Herbarium, Oxford, was for many years included in the genus Clianthus and known as Clianthus formosus. It has since been reclassified and placed in the genus Swainsona (after Isaac Swainson, a scientist and plant cultivator). Formosa is the Latin formosus, for beautiful, hence the species Swainsona formosa.

Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa).The plant is more commonly known as “Sturt’s Desert Pea” after explorer Captain Charles Sturt, who noted the occurrence of Swainsona formosa in 1844 while exploring between Adelaide and Central Australia. Sturt’s journal “Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia” makes several references to the beauty of the desert pea in flower and the harsh nature of its habitat.

Habitat: Sturt’s Desert Pea occurs in all mainland states except Victoria and has also been seen growing in the southern most part of the Northern Territory. It is found growing in red-brown sandy or loamy soils on open plains, mulga shrubland and the desert regions of Central Australia. It is found mainly in areas where there is no grazing of livestock as the plant is eaten by cattle.

The plant can be seen growing as cultivated plantings in Alice Springs, Alice Springs Desert Park, and Olive Pink Botanic Garden. Many botanic gardens may also have cultivated plants on display of the Sturt’s Desert Pea.

Description: In its natural habitat, Sturt’s Desert Pea is a perennial plant with an almost silky grey-green pinnate foliage which grows prostrate spreading across the ground, that has erect flower clusters. There are two recognised forms - the inland form with a black boss, and the northern form, with a pale red boss. Other naturally occurring hybridisation within the species have given rise to plants with a pure white, pale pink, apricot and bicolours flower, with or without the black boss.

Leaves: Close examination shows that the leaves and stems are covered with downy hairs. The leaves pinnate with about 13-15 hairy leaflets, that decrease in size towards the apex.

Flowers: The flowers are usually arranged in a clusters of three to eight on a thick, short, erect stalks. The flower itself are about 9 cm from tip to tip and is usually a blood red or scarlet. A variation to the colour range from white to deep pink. The standard petal is pointed upwards and has a shiny black, sometimes red or pale dome (“boss”) at the base. The keel is the same length and points downwards. There are two small “wings” petals below the boss pointing in the same direction as the keel.

Fruit: The narrowly ellipsoid pods swell and are about 10-12 mm in length.

Sturt’s Desert Pea was adopted as the floral emblem of South Australia on 23rd November, 1961, using the name Clianthus formosus.

Aboriginal Dreamtime: There are a number of stories about the Sturt's Desert Pea from Aboriginal Dreamtime, the saddest being about two young people from different tribes, who were in love. The flowers are known to the Aboriginal people as 'Flowers of Blood'.

More images in our 'Snapshots of Australia: Sturt's Desert Pea'.

Scientific Name Common name Where Found
Swainsona formosa Sturt’s Desert Pea
Flowers of Blood
The natural habitat for the Sturts Desert Pea habitat ranges from Karratha on the Western Australia coast, across Central Australia and north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, down south to the northern half of South Australia, the south-west part of Queensland and western part of New South Wales.
Scientific Classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Fabales
Family: Fabaceae
Subfamily: Faboideae
Tribe: Galegeae
Genus: Swainsona
Species: S. formosa
Binomial name: Swainsona formosa
Swainsona formosa • Images
Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa) Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa) Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa)
Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa) Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa) Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa)
Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa) Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa) Sturt’s Desert Pea growing on the side of the road.
Sturt’s Desert Pea © Colin Leel, May 2007 Sturt’s Desert Pea © Colin Leel, May 2007 Sturt’s Desert Pea © Colin Leel, May 2007
The white form of the Sturt’s Desert Pea © AusEmade Pty Ltd    

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Swainsona formosa • Other links

Australian National Botanic Gardens Sturt’s Desert Pea
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants (ASGAP) Swainsona formosa
Wikipedia Swainsona formosa
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