Clitoria mariana. the beautiful butterfly pea

As noted in last month’s Desert Breeze, over the next several months we’ll be looking at some of the botanical illustrations prepared for the upcoming book, Legumes of Arizona: An Illustrated Flora and Reference. This month’s illustration is Clitoria mariana, the butterfly pea, by John Gerdes.

There are some 60 species in the genus Clitoria occurring in temperate and tropical regions throughout the world. Habits range from trees and shrubs to low twining vines, such as Clitoria mariana, which occurs in much of the United States, including southern Arizona. The most striking feature of Clitoria mariana is its large two-inch papilionaceous (butterfly-like) flowers. John’s pen and ink drawing clearly presents the large butterfly-shaped petal, or banner. Shown alongside John’s drawing is a watercolor by Mary Vaux Walcott, painted in 1934, which shows the lavender and violet corolla and the reddish markings on the banner.

So, about the origin of the plant’s name—yes, it’s what you might imagine when looking at the flowers. The name likely was a result of the doctrine of signatures, a centuries-old practice among herbalists and apothecaries of using plants that resembled human body parts to treat ailments afflicting that part of the body. Thus, plants in the genus Clitoria (from the Greek “kleitoris”) were used as an aphrodisiac and to treat infertility and venereal disease. Naming a plant after a resemblance to female anatomy hasn’t been without controversy. Years after Linnaeus named four species of Clitoria, in 1753, several nineteenth-century botanists criticized the comparison of a flower’s appearance to human genitalia, and all proposed alternative names. Nonetheless, the genus has remained Clitoria.

John Gerdes contributed several botanical illustrations for the Legumes of Arizona project. John, who passed away in 2014, was a self-taught artist whose subjects consist primarily of Arizona plants, animals, and landscapes. One of his paintings was accepted into the Top 200 of the Arts for the Parks Competition displayed in Jackson, Wyoming. Among other awards, he twice won first place in the North American Butterfly Association art competition. John was a member of the Southern Arizona Arts Guild and the Arizona Native Plant Society.

A selection of John's drawings for Legumes of Arizona can be seen in the Sonoran Desert Florilegium. Elsewhere on our site is a biographical sketch of Mary Vaux Walcott, along with her magnificent illustration of the ocotillo, and a gallery of her paintings of wildflowers. — Cindy Hartwell

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the May 2018 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.