The largest of the subfamilies is the Papilonoidae, named for the distinctive, butterfly-shaped wings of the flower petals. This subfamily includes the most familiar and economically important legumes, such as beans, peas, peanuts, lentils, and soybeans, the vetches and other ground covers, and animal forage crops, such as clovers, sweet clovers, lupines, and alfalfa.

Most members of the subfamily Caesalpinioidae are tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs, many of which are widely planted as ornamentals, including the honey-locust (Gledtsia) and redbud (Cercis species)—both very popular ornamentals— along with a number of subtropical shrubs and small trees, notably the mesquite and palo verde of the American Southwest. The subfamily also includes a number of vines, such as wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) and wait-a-minute vine. An extract of the wild senna (Senna alexandrina) is an important purgative medicine. The flowers of Caesalpinioidae have five uneven petals.

The subfamily Mimosoidae also consists mostly of tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs, such as mimosa and the Kentucky coffee tree, Gymnocladus dioica. Legumes of this subfamily typically have a cluster of small flowers on a single stem, the whole covered by long stamens.

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