Butterfly Pea: A Magical Medicinal Flower
The blooms of Clitorea terneta electrify the landscape in a blazing azure. The name originated from greek word ‘Kleitoris’ referring to the shape of the flower which resembles female genitalia and nicknamed as Butterfly Pea. It may at first feel foreign in the traditional herb garden, but its natural ability to soothe the nerves and seemingly magical dye properties make this exotic beauty a ‘must grow’ for every herbalist. This twisting and twining edible ornamental vining plant enlivens the garden with whimsy. It is a mystical plant from tropical Asia, a delight to please our inner child and dreamer.
The creeping vines and electric blue blooms of butterfly pea are a wildflower originating in equatorial Asia, its native range encompassing the Indian subcontinent as well as southeast Asia. The striking blooms have been celebrated since ancient times, they appear throughout history in traditional medicine and culinary culture across their native range.
Culinary History/Traditional Culinary Use
Butterfly pea has a mild, almost bland flavor, however they more than make up for lack of flavor with their intense natural color! The distinctly true blue color is actually quite rare in the plant world, making it a popular choice for natural blue food coloring. Most recipes including butterfly pea play on its wild pigments and rely on additional ingredients for added depth of flavor.
The deep blue natural color of the butterfly pea has long been used throughout southeast Asian cuisine as a natural food dye. In Malaysia, a traditional dish called Pulut Tai Tai is prepared by adding the blue petals to glutinous sticky rice.
In Thailand, the flowers are often battered in tempura and fried. Perhaps most well known is Dok Anchan, or Thai butterfly pea tea. The blooms are steeped into a soothing and mild tea usually flavored with lemongrass. This tea will undergo a seemingly magical color transformation when exposed to citrus, turning from brilliant sapphire to magenta and light pink in the blink of an eye.
The science behind the magical color transformation
The blue color of the petals is an indication of an antioxidant called anthocyanin. This is the same antioxidant pigment that gives blueberries and beets their distinct deep color. What is even more fantastic is the “magical” color change that transpires when citrus or other acidifying element is added to butterfly pea dye. With pH change, the color of the anthocyanin turns from blue to pink as it becomes more acidic.
Butterfly Pea Tea
1 C. Butterfly Pea Blooms
4 C. Water
1 small bundle Lemongrass
Lemon or Lime
Place blooms and lemongrass into a large pitcher, pour boiling water over blooms and let sit for 10-15 minutes. This will yield a potent blue tea that can be served hot or iced. Serve tea with a wedge of citrus, allowing guests to change their tea from indigo blue to bubblegum pink in a matter of seconds! You can also adapt this tea into a latte, by adding steamed milk and sweetener of your choice.