Definition of Legume is any of the plants that belong to the pea family. They make up the second largest family of flowering plants. The composite family is the largest. Botanists recognize between 14,000 and 17,000 species (kinds) of legumes. The group gets its name from the legumes (seed pods) that the plants bear.

Many legumes are of great economic importance throughout the world. Such legumes as peas, beans, and peanuts are valuable foods. Alfalfa, clover, and vetch are important forage and pasture plants. Other legumes yield medicines, dyes, oils, and timber.

Legumes grow in most parts of the world. They vary widely and may be trees, shrubs, or herbs. Many are climbing plants. The flowers of one large subfamily of legumes look like butterflies. Botanists call this group Papilionoideae, from the Latin word for butterfly. The common sweet pea belongs to this group. The flowers of other legumes may be small and regular. The flowers of still others may be irregular, with spreading petals.

Legumes take nitrogen into their roots from the air. Certain bacteria, called rhizobia, live in nodules (knotlike growths) that form along the roots of the plants. These bacteria take nitrogen from the air and change it into forms that can be used by plants. This characteristic makes leguminous plants valuable in agriculture. Farmers often use them as green manure and as cover crops to improve poor soil.
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