Economically, the family is second only to the grasses in importance. Legumes provide valuable and nutritive foods because the food stored for the embryo in the seed (e.g., the pea) is rich in protein. In many regions, especially where meat is scarce or expensive, legumes—notably peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, carob, and soybeans—are staples of the diet. The Fabaceae are equally important as fodder and forage plants; clover, alfalfa, vetch, lupine, beggarweed, lespedeza, sainfoin, and soybeans are among the numerous valuable types.
These food and forage legumes are chief among the plants used as "green manure" (see manure). Nitrogen-fixing bacteria dwelling in nodules of the roots of most legumes fix free nitrogen from the air into the nitrogenous compounds needed by all forms of life for building proteins (see nitrogen cycle). Rotation of leguminous crops with nonleguminous crops has long been a standard agricultural practice; the soil is enriched when their roots are left to decay after harvesting.
The pulse family also provides gums and resins (e.g., tragacanth, copal, and acacia and carob gums), dyes and tannins (e.g., from the indigo plant, logwood, brazilwood, and types of acacia and broom), timber (e.g., rosewood, locust, honey locust, and acacia), medicines (e.g., from tamarind, licorice, and senna), perfume oils (e.g., from acacia, black locust, broom, and sweet pea), vegetable oils (e.g., soybean and peanut oils), and other commercial items such as flavorings, fibers, and insecticides.
In many parts of the world native species of the Leguminosae are of great importance locally, if not commercially. Often every part of the plant finds some use: the pods and leaves for food, beverages, and forage; the wood and stems for building purposes, fiber, and household items; and the leaves, blossoms, and bark for domestic remedies. The blossoms of many of the Leguminosae are excellent honey sources. Species that grow in arid climates are particularly valuable because of the scarcity of other fodder, food, and timber crops; they are also important to wildlife for forage and cover. Native Americans have cultivated bean plants since antiquity and still rely on breadroot, redwood, mesquite, and many other species for food and other products.
Among the native North American trees cultivated for shade or for their beautiful springtime blossoms are the locusts, the honey locust, the yellowwood, the redbud, and the acacias. The mimosas, sennas, laburnums, poincianas, Old World acacias, shrubby brooms, and wisteria have been introduced for the same purpose. The American lupines, the Old World sweet pea, and numerous types of clover are among the cultivated herbaceous species. In all, members of over 140 genera of the Leguminosae are grown for ornament. Furze from Europe and the kudzu vine from Asia have been introduced for erosion control (the latter has become a noxious weed). The locoweeds and lupines of the western states are among the plants poisonous to livestock.
See articles on individual plants.