A traditional source for colorful red and black beads for necklaces, bracelets and rosaries, the rosemary pea (Abrus precatorius) produces attractive lavender flowers before forming the decorative seeds. Red with a large black spot, a seed may also be called "crab's eye" or known in Africa or Asia as gunja or jequerity. A tropical plant, it has escaped cultivation worldwide and grows in regions with mild winters and long, hot summers, such as in USDA Hardiness Zones 9 and warmer.
Rosemary pea is native to dry lowlands in the tropical areas of southern and eastern Africa as well as southern Asia, such as in India, Indonesia and the Southeast Asian archipelago. The ornamental seeds found their way across the world due to trade and their escape into soil in other tropical regions to become a roadside weed.
The botanical name, Abrus precatorius, derives from Greek words. Abrus means "graceful" or "delicate" and refers the leaflets, while precatorius means "to petition or pray," alluding to the use of the plant's seeds for traditional use for prayer rosaries. "Rosemary" may be a colloquial misnomer of "rosary," an item unfamiliar to certain religious groups and cultures.
Rosemary pea is a perennial climbing vine, a member of the pea or bean family, Fabaceae. Its smooth, brown stems bear medium green leaves comprising over 20 oval leaflets with slightly hairy surfaces. In summer the stems produce upright clusters of pale mauve or light lavender-pink pea-like flowers that become many silky brown pods after being pollinated by insects. Each pod splits open to reveal about five scarlet-red rounded "peas" or seeds that have a black spot. These seeds are soft when immature but hard and glossy when ripe.
Rosemary pea supplies both economic and medicinal benefits to traditional cultures in Africa and Asia. The leaves are harvested and eaten in eastern Africa in salads. Leaves made into tea treat fevers, coughs and colds. Roots provide medicine to temper gonorrhea and jaundice, and a root paste helps sooth abdominal pains. Certain components of the seeds, when cautiously and appropriately prepared, bear anodyne, antimicrobial, diuretic, emetic, expectorant, febrifuge, hemostat, purgative and refrigerant properties, according to the www.Iloveindia.com website. The colorful seeds are used to make jewelry and prayer rosaries for sale to locals and tourists in both Africa and southern Asia.
Consuming raw seeds results in nausea, vomiting, severe abdominal pain and diarrhea, as well as burning in the throat, initially. Days later, ulcer lesions of the mouth and esophagus follow and death may occur. The plant secretes the toxin called abrin, which is closely related to ricin. Keep seeds away from children at all costs.