In Southeast Asia, people enjoy an delicious blue tea using the dried flowers from a native plant called the butterfly pea flower, or Clitoria ternatea. Add an acid like lemon, and it changes from blue to purple. As tea lovers around the world discovered this magical brew, it became a wildly popular beverage at high-end restaurants and tea shops, and was quickly picked up by online retailers. What home gardeners and tea lovers alike may not realize is that the butterfly pea flower isn’t hard to grow or propagate.
In its native tropical and equatorial Asian habitats, the butterfly pea plant is a perennial. It is a legume and member of the pea family (Fabaceae) and an evergreen climber with either egg-shaped or elliptic leaves. Although it’s hardy and can stand up to hot conditions with little rain, it has a low seed-germination rate. It creates fruits up to seven centimeters long from which deep blue or white blooms emerge. When tender, these fruits are edible.
Horticulturists and home gardeners learned to take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between this plant’s roots and rhizobia bacteria in the soil. It improves and balances nitrogen levels, creating healthier plant environments. In the warmest areas — hardiness zones 11 and 12 — the butterfly pea flower is a perennial. In most other growing regions, it is an annual. It can also be biennial, taking two years between flowering, seed formation, and demise.
The butterfly pea flower gets its name from its elegant flower petals that flutter in the breeze. This climber thrives in moderately humid temperatures above 60 degrees but loves temperatures between 75 and 89. The vines quickly grow to nine feet or more in length. Overall, the plant can reach a height of up to 10 feet and a spread of two to three feet.
Give it some support — such as a trellis — and this amazing plant will take off. Try planting it near a hedge or shrub. The vines will weave their way through it and add eye-catching splashes of color from summer through fall, its blooming season. Many gardeners plant the butterfly pea flower in hanging baskets. Lush, green vines and showy blooms up to three inches long spill out over the edges and create a beautiful focal point for a patio or porch area.
Clitoria ternatea seeds are available from a variety of online seed houses and vendors. Choose from growers offering aged seeds that are at six to 10 months old — they germinate more easily than fresh ones. Plant in the spring, but, before planting, nick or file the seeds, and soak them overnight at room temperature. Sow seeds in warm soil three to four inches apart. Within the first two weeks after planting, you should see new plants emerging.
This plant needs lots of bright, full sunlight — at least six to eight hours each day — to bloom. They thrive in tropical climates, so they can handle drought as easily as heavy rains. The pea plant can lose its leaves but continue to live. About six to eight weeks after planting, the magnificent blooms appear. Water regularly to keep your plant looking healthy and green. Beyond that, it requires little additional care, so don’t fuss over it. Just enjoy its beauty!
If you are planning the perfect container garden to spruce up your patio, consider the butterfly pea plant, as long as the pot is at least six to eight inches deep. Attach string or rope to walls or other fixtures, and watch the vines make their way across them. The flowers are lovely but don’t discount the ornamental value of the richly colored, lavish foliage.
If you plan on transplanting seedlings, don’t remove the soil from its root ball, and take special care not to damage the root system. If you’re transplanting into a pot, work your way up in size, starting with a four- to six-inch pot, Allow the seedlings to grow for a month to six weeks, fertilizing just once. They should only receive partial sun at this point. Then, after two months, transplant to a bigger pot and allow full sun.
In addition to tea and culinary purposes, manufacturers and scientific communities alike have cultivated the butterfly pea flower for a wide variety of agricultural and medical applications. Products include cosmetics, food coloring, pharmacologicals, and even an eco-friendly insecticide. The plant has antioxidant qualities, and traditional medicine practitioners use its extract to relieve fever, inflammation, and pain. Research into other uses is ongoing.
Before creating delicious butterfly pea flower tea, the flowers must be dried. Some people use a food dehydrator to accomplish this in about five hours. Others spread out the blooms on a winnowing tray. If you don’t have either of these, try air drying the flowers near a kitchen window for a few days. For tea, steep dried flowers in hot, filtered water in a covered teapot for a minimum of five minutes, then strain and drink. For iced tea, fill a pitcher with the hot tea. Add room temperature water, cover, and refrigerate for around six hours. Strain and serve with fresh lemon over ice.