I have always had a soft spot for the winged flowers of the legume family, so I was delighted to discover that the tiny specks of pink dotting the olive grove were wild crimson peas (also known as Spanish vetchling). These small bicoloured flowers are fingernail sized and turn from vibrant pink and soft mauve to deep indigo as they fade. They grow in a rather ramshackle way, stretching along the ground, or climbing tall with their tendrils coiled tightly around surrounding flowers and grasses.
These peas were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and are still grown and eaten in the Aegean Islands, but in many places, including Italy, they were mainly consumed in times of hardship when food was scarce. As with many wild peas, they should be approached with caution, as excessive consumption can lead to the neurological disease lathyrism, which attacks the central nervous system and causes paralysis.
These peas, along with clover and medic, which also grow freely here, have an important function in the olive grove. These plants are all part of the legume (Fabaceae) family, which is renound for its nitrogen fixing properties. The plants have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules, and when the plants die they release nitrogen into the soil, acting as natural fertilizers for the olive trees. In fact, legumes are often deliberately planted by organic farmers as a cover crop in olive groves in order to improve soil fertility and prevent erosion. Luckily we already have plenty!