I’ve written this wild beach peas and beach pea shoots guide to reduce the anxiety a lot of new foragers feel over harvesting these wild local plants.
The scientific name for wild beach peas is Lathyrus japonicus, though they are also known as sea peas, circumpolar peas and sea vetchling.
Though they’re an unassuming, albeit very pretty, legume, wild beach peas and beach pea shoots are surprisingly contentious in the foraging community.
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.
This Wild Beach Peas and Shoots Foraging Guide will cover the following topics:
- Are wild beach peas and wild beach pea shoots edible?
- How to identify wild beach peas
- How to forage for wild beach peas and wild beach pea shoots
- Foraging best practices to keep in mind
- How to cook and eat wild beach peas
- How to cook and eat wild beach pea shoots
Are Wild Beach Peas and Wild Beach Pea Shoots Edible?
Wild beach peas and wild beach pea shoots are completely 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.
tl;dr 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 harvest these plants safely.
Wild Beach Pea Identification Overview
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.
Wild beach pea vines:
- 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
Wild beach pea leaves:
- 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
Wild 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
Wild beach pea pods:
- 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 Wild Beach Pea Shoots
Foraging Wild Beach Peas
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 just like fresh English peas. Open the pea pods, harvest the peas, and prepare as you would fresh English peas.
Foraging Wild Beach Pea Shoots
Wild beach pea shoots are best taken during the spring and early summer period, when the vine leaves are still young and delicate.
Select a healthy beach pea plant. Pinch off a vine from the end tendril to 2-4 leaflet pairs into the vine.
Wild beach pea shoots are tender and green tasting with a delightfully subtle bitterness.
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
- When in doubt, avoid foraging from protected lands like parks (where edibles are often supporting protected local wildlife in the area) and private property (unless you have explicit permission to forage from the landowner)
Foraging best practices should be used when harvesting any wild edible, including wild beach peas and wild mushrooms — check out my foraging guide to wild mushrooms in BC with more helpful tips on responsible foraging.
How to Cook and Eat Wild Beach Peas
Wild beach peas can be eaten raw or cooked. They are smaller and a little firmer than cultivated peas. Beach peas are also remarkably sweet in comparison to the typical frozen pea variety from the grocery store.
When eaten raw, shelled beach peas are sweet and green tasting (for lack of a better term). 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.
How to Cook and Eat Wild Beach Pea Shoots
Wild beach pea shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. They taste similar to cultivated varieties of pea shoots you can find in grocery stores, though they are less sweet than commercial pea shoots.
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!