Cajanus cajan

pigeon pea


Cajanus cajan

(L.) Millsp. 1900

pronounced: kuh-JAY-nuss KAY-jan

(Fabaceae — the pea family)

subfamily: Faboideae - the bean subfamily


common name: pigeon pea

Cajanus is the Latinized form of the Malay vernacular name for the Pigeon Pea. The cultivation of this plant goes back at least 3,000 years. The centre of origin is most likely Asia, from where it travelled to East Africa and by means of the slave trade to the American continent. Today pigeon peas are widely cultivated in all tropical and subtropical regions of both the Old and the New World. There is a perennial variety, in which the crop can last 3 – 5 years (although the seed yield drops considerably after the second year), and an annual variety, more suitable for seed production.

Pigeon pea is an erect woody shrub to small tree, 1 – 4 m tall with a deep tap root (to 2 m). Young stems are angled and pubescent.

The leaves are trifoliate, alternate, set in a spiral round the stem; the leaflets are oblong and lanceolate, 2 – 10 cm long and 2 – 4 cm wide, pubescent; green above and greyish green below. The lateral petioles are 2 – 3 mm long, the terminal one 10 – 20 mm; the stipules linear, 2 – 3 mm long.

The flowers are usually yellow, sometimes with purple or red streaks or plain red; the calyx 10 – 12 mm long with 5 linear teeth.

The pods are flat, acuminate, pubescent, 5 – 9 cm long, 12 – 13 mm wide, containing 2 – 9 oval to round seeds varying in colour from light beige to dark brown.

The peas are both a food crop (dried peas, flour, or green vegetable peas) and a forage or cover crop. They contain high levels of protein and important amino acids. In combination with cereals, pigeon peas make a well-balanced human food. The dried peas may be sprouted briefly, then cooked, for a change of flavour; sprouting also enhances the digestibility, as it reduces indigestible sugars that would otherwise remain in the cooked dried peas.

In India, split pigeon peas (known as toor dal) are one of the most popular pulses, being an important source of protein in a mostly vegetarian diet. In regions where the peas grow, fresh young pods are eaten as a vegetable in dishes such as sambhar. In Ethiopia, not only the pods, but the young shoots and leaves are cooked and eaten. In some places, including the Dominican Republic, pigeon peas are grown for canning; moro de Guandules, made of rice and green pigeon peas, is a traditional food. In Puerto Rico, arroz con gandules, a similar dish, is popular. Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada have their own variant, pelau, which includes beef or chicken, and occasionally pumpkin and pieces of cured pig tail.

Ethnomedical uses are widespread:
       • Argentina – bronchitis, coughs, genital irritation, pneumonia, skin problems;
       • Brazil – blood disorders, coughs, fevers, inflammation, pain, respiratory infections, sores, ulcers;
       • China – as an antidote, expectorant, sedative, vermifuge, and for tumors;
       • Cuba – for bronchitis and colds;
       • Dominican Republic – chest problems, sores, sore throats, wounds;
       • Haiti – as an antidote (manihot), gargle, for jaundice, uticaria, wounds;
       • India – colic, convulsions, leprosy, abdominal tumors;
       • Malaysia – abdominal pain, coughs, dermatitis, diarrhoea, earache;
       • Mexico – as an astringent, diuretic, laxative, for dysentery;
       • Peru – for anaemia, diabetes, dysentery, hepatitis, menstrual disorders, urinary infections, yellow fever, as a diuretic;
       • Trinidad – influenza and strokes.

Several Lepidoptera larvae use this as a food plant, including Cupid Euchrysops cnejus, and the New Pod Borer Adisura marginalis.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010, 2011
Page last updated 25th October 2018