- Are wild beach peas and pea shoots edible?
- How to identify wild beach peas
- How to forage for wild beach peas and shoots
- Tips on foraging best practices
- Tips to eat and cook wild beach peas
- Tips to cook wild beach pea shoots
Wild food enthusiasts often disagree about whether these edible delicacies are actually edible at all. Bringing up beach peas can turn any mild mannered foraging conversation into a passionate debate.
I’m confident that wild beach peas and beach pea shoots are delicious and edible, if consumed responsibly — just like any other wild food. Allow me to convince you to come over to the delicious side with this beach pea guide.
Are Wild Beach Peas and Pea Shoots Edible?
Wild beach peas and wild beach pea shoots are edible when consumed as part of a varied and well balanced diet. These wild beach legumes have acquired their poor reputation for two reasons:
- Wild beach peas fall within a genus of legumes called Lathyrus. Certain species of Lathyrus legumes can contain a toxin called oxalyldiaminopropionic acid (ODAP) that is linked to a neurological disease called lathyrism.
- Scientific studies focused on famine populations that rely on one kind of Lathyrus legume, the Lathyrus sativus (also known as the grass pea), have been disseminated in the foraging community.
Regarding the second point, these studies found that if Lathyrus sativus comprises of 30% or more of an individual’s diet for three months or longer, they can contract lathyrism, if they are already susceptible to the disease.
Though these studies only looked at populations with a diet heavy in Lathyrus sativus, the idea that all Lathyrus legumes cause lathyrism immediately has been popularized throughout the foraging community.
Wild food influencer and cookbook author Hank Shaw has written about wild beach peas in considerable depth. Hank Shaw has found evidence of many native communities in North America that have eaten varieties of wild peas as part of their diets, including:
- Lathyrus japonicus (AKA wild beach peas eaten by Iroquois, Eskimo, and several other seaside tribes)
- Lathyrus ochroleucus (Ojibwe)
- Lathyrus gramnifolius (Karuk of Northern California)
Wild food experts such as Hank Shaw and respected ethnobonatist T. Abe Lloyd agree that wild beach peas and wild beach pea shoots are edible and safe when consumed as part of a balanced diet. And while I’m not a scientist or foraging expert, I’ve researched this topic, and I trust these expert sources.
Summary: Wild beach peas and wild beach pea shoots are edible in moderation as part of a varied diet.
How to Identify Wild Beach Peas
Learning to positively identify* wild beach peas is crucial to foraging these legumes safely. I will identify several beach pea characteristics divided into sections to help you identify these plants safely. Follow these steps to identify wild beach peas:
- Learn overall features of wild beach peas:
- Beach peas are a wild legume native to temperate coastal regions across North and South America, Europe, and Asia
- Wild beach peas are perennial herbaceous plants that grow in trailing vines along gravel and sand beaches
- Beach pea vines have waxy green leaves that can grow distinctive purple flowers.
- Identify key features of the beach pea vine:
- Wild beach peas grow in vines that are between 50–80 cm long
- No taller than 45 cm tall
- Can grow in extensive patches
- Vines are limp (not woody or hard), thin, and hairless
- No woody stem (no main woody body) above ground
- Identify key features of the beach pea leaf:
- Wild beach pea leaves (vines) grow with pinnate compound leaflets
- Leaves have 3-5 pairs of leaflets each
- Leaves end with a terminal tendril at the end
- Leaflets are waxy green, usually smooth, oval shaped, hairless, with a tip at the end
- Identify key features of beach pea flowers:
- Wild beach peas grow broad, dark purple to pink flowers
- Flowers usually have a dark purple standard petal and paler purple wing and keel petals
- Flowers usually bloom in May and can flower into September, depending on the weather
- Identify key features of the beach pea pod:
- Wild beach pea pods appear when the weather is drier in the summer months
- New pea pods are hairy and green or red with green tips
- Aged pea pods are greenish-red and are brownish when dried
- Pea pods have between 6-10 peas that are around 1/4″ wide
*Safety Note For New Foragers
You should only forage and eat wild edible plants, fruits, vegetables, and fungi if you’re able to positively identification them. This means that you know the exact characteristics that define the particular item you want to harvest. You should never rely on identifying anything in the wilderness by the process of elimination. Basically, if you aren’t absolutely sure, don’t eat it.
How to Forage For Wild Beach Peas and Pea Shoots
Follow these steps to forage for wild beach peas and wild beach pea shoots:
- To forage for wild peas in pods:
- Know that wild beach pea pods ripen at different times during the pod growing period. You can forage from the same plant over a single season as long as the plant is large and healthy enough to sustain multiple harvests.
- Wild beach pea pods can be shelled for peas just like fresh English peas.
- Open the pea pods, harvest the peas, and prepare as you would fresh English peas.
- To forage for wild pea shoots, follow these steps:
- Know that wild beach pea shoots are best taken during the spring and early summer period, when the vine leaves are still young and delicate. Older vines can be bitter.
- Select a healthy beach pea plant. Pinch off a vine from the end tendril to 2-4 leaflet pairs into the vine. Only take a little; vines are important for the health of the plant.
- Wild beach pea shoots are tender and green tasting with a delightfully subtle bitterness. Pea shoots are commonly eaten in many cultures, including Cantonese cuisine.
Tips On Foraging Best Practices
When foraging for wild beach peas and pea shoots, always follow these foraging best practices:
- Only harvest edibles from specimens that you can positively identify with confidence
- Only take what you need (a small percentage, less than 15% max) from a healthy specimen
- Never over-harvest from one specimen or patch of specimens
- Follow local harvest regulations in your area
- Avoid foraging from protected lands like parks and reserves, where edibles are often supporting protected local wildlife in the area, and private property, unless you have explicit permission to forage from the landowner
- Practice leave no trace principles. Leave places in better condition compared to when you arrived.
Foraging best practices should be used when harvesting any wild edible food. Check out my foraging guide to wild mushrooms in BC with more helpful tips on responsible foraging.
How to Eat and Cook Wild Beach Peas
Here are some tips to help you cook and/or eat wild beach peas:
- Wild beach peas can be eaten raw or cooked in moderation, though cooking may be preferable for optimal nutrition and digestion. These peas are smaller and a little firmer than cultivated peas. Beach peas are sweeter in comparison to the typical frozen pea variety from the grocery store, in my opinion.
- When eaten raw, shelled beach peas are sweet and vegetal tasting. Raw beach peas are a delicious addition to a fresh green salad or grain bowl.
- Shelled beach peas can also be cooked. They’re excellent when sautéed on the stovetop in butter with a little garlic powder, fresh ground pepper, and salt, but you can cook them in any way you would prepare English peas.
Tips to Cook Wild Beach Pea Shoots
Here are some tips to help you cook wild beach pea shoots:
- Wild beach pea shoots can be eaten raw, but they are better cooked (in my opinion). Wild beach pea shoots should be eaten in moderation. They taste similar to cultivated varieties of pea shoots you can commonly find in Chinese and other Asian grocery stores.
- Beach pea shoots have a subtle bitterness that’s common in many cultures with traditions of edible vegetable foraging, such as Greek, Sardinian, and Chinese cuisines. I really enjoy their wild bitterness, especially when they’re lightly cooked.
- Raw beach pea shoots are tender and vegetative. They’re lovely in green salads or used as a fresh garnish.
- Cooked wild beach pea shoots can be cooked like mature spinach or similarly leafy, slightly bitter greens.
Did you harvest any wild beach peas or wild beach pea shoots this year? Let me know in the comments below!
This post was originally published in 2018 and was updated on November 27, 2020.