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Canavalia is a genus of flowering plants in the legume family (Fabaceae) and comprises approximately 48 to 50 species of tropical vines. Members of the genus are commonly known as jack-beans. The species of Canavalia endemic to the Hawaiian Islands were named ʻāwikiwiki by the Native Hawaiians. The name translates to "the very quick one" and comes from the Hawaiian word for "fast" that has also been appropriated into the name "Wikipedia". The genus name is derived from the Malabar word for the species, kavavali, which means "forest climber."
Several species are valued legume crops, including common jack-bean (C. ensiformis), sword bean (C. gladiata) and C. cathartica. At least the first makes a beneficial weed- and pathogen-suppressing living mulch. The common jack-bean is also a source of the lectin concanavalin A, which is used as a reagent in glycoprotein biochemistry and immunology. The jack-bean is also a common source of purified urease enzyme used in scientific research.
Some animals have adaptations to the defensive chemicals of jack-beans. Caterpillars such as that of the two-barred flasher (Astraptes fulgerator) are sometimes found on Canavalia. The plant pathogenic ascomycete fungus Mycosphaerella canavaliae was described from a jack-bean. Introduced herbivores have wreaked havoc on Canavalia on the Hawaiian Islands and made some nearly extinct; it may be that these lost their chemical defenses because no herbivorous mammals existed in their range until introduced by humans. The usually bright pea-flowers are pollinated by insects such as solitary bees and carpenter bees such as Xylocopa confusa.
The genus name Canavalia was, as recently as 1913, known as Canavali.
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- Piper, C. V. 1913. "The Jack Bean and the Sword Bean." USDA Bureau of Plant Industry, Circular. No. 110. p. 29-36
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- "GRIN Species Records of Canavalia". Germplasm Resources Information Network. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 2010-12-03.
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