Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

lath lathyrus, or grass pea or chickling vetch, the usual names for a leguminous plant, Lathyrus sativus, related to the pea, broad bean, etc. It survives in dry, poor soil where better plants would die; and is now grown mainly in India as a source of cheap and inferior pulse, known as khesari dal.

The plant is of W. Asian origin and was cultivated in S. Europe in the classical period (when lathyros was its Greek name). It is still grown there on a small scale for fodder.

Lath has one mysterious and dangerous feature. From time to time there is an outbreak of a paralysing disease, lathyrism, among people and animals that consume it. The sufferer’s legs become suddenly and permanently paralysed. hippocrates, the Greek physician of the 6th century bc, mentioned lathyrism, as did many writers after him. However, the poor of Europe continued to eat chickling vetch and other vetches, often mixed with cereal flour, and there were occasional epidemics. Lathyrism still occurs sporadically in India; and there was an outbreak in Spain in 1940–1.