SOUTHERN PEAS – GARDENING TIPS FROM THE CULINARY VIEW
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
July is the first full month of summer and brings hot days and warm nights. July is typically our lowest rainfall month as well so the crops we are growing now need to be robust. Fortunately, there are many wonderful vegetables that perform just fine including Southern peas.
The Southern pea (Vigna unguiculata), also known as the cowpea is originally from Africa and has been in cultivation for 1000’s of years. First recorded in the US in the late 1700s, this vegetable prospered in the warm Southern states where it became a staple crop for animal fodder (hence the cowpea designation) and for the table. There are 100’s of varieties of Southern peas to choose from and all share the ability to grow in really warm conditions. An added benefit to growing peas is that being a legume, they capture their own nitrogen from the atmosphere and can improve the soil. Southern peas are planted after all danger of frost and are usually planted on 4 to 6-inch centers – dense enough to choke out any weeds. Some supplemental irrigation may be best is there has been no rainfall for a week or more. Southern peas do have their share of pests and diseases, but the plants tend to grow right through them, so I seldom must treat for anything. Peas are self-fertile and attract several different pollinators to the garden. Many varieties can mature in as little as 60 days often allowing two crops to be produced.
Southern pea varieties are quite diverse. Some plants grow as long vines while others grow in a bush form. Peas also come in a variety of pod and seed colors; cream-colored, brown, black and even red. Many peas also have a dark “eye” leading to the common name “black-eyed pea”. Some varieties grow the peas squished together in the pods so tightly that the peas take on an almost rectangle shape – these are commonly known as “crowders”.
Over the years, gardeners have saved their favorite peas for replanting and given them interesting variety names. Some of my favorite names are Whippoorwill, Iron and Clay, Red Ripper and Turkey Craw. I’ve grown both Iron and Clay and Red Ripper out of curiosity and they were certainly OK to eat but might be better suited for a forage crop or green manure as they grow very long vines.
Each kind of pea has a somewhat different flavor and texture. For variety, we like to grow a brown crowder, a purple hull, and a cream pea. The brown crowder has the earthiest flavor while the cream pea (sometimes called a lady pea) is the most tender with the mildest flavor. The purple hull pea is somewhere in the middle. Purple hull peas are so named because the hull of the pea turns purple when it ripens. This makes finding the pods and knowing when to harvest that much easier.
When choosing specific varieties my preference are bush types that are determinate – i.e. set the pods pretty much all at once. The bush types are generally more compact for the same yield and it is easier to find and harvest the peas. The determinate varieties allow us to harvest most of the peas in just a few days which is handy since we blanch and freeze a lot of the harvest for later consumption. If you are new to growing Sothern Peas, I suggest you start with the variety Texas Pink-Eye Purple Hull. Developed by Texas A&M, this variety is one of the most consistent for us.
Southern peas can be harvested at 3 stages – snaps, fresh peas, and dried peas. Snaps are harvested when the pods are very tender and before the peas inside have developed. They are eaten just like green beans. Fresh peas – which are shelled before eating – are picked when the peas are full sized but still tender. This is the way we harvest most of our peas and the way I think they are absolutely the best. Peas can also be left on the vine until they dry and can be removed from the hull and cooked or stored like any other dry bean.
Southern peas can be substituted for just about any bean recipe. The classic Southern recipe is peas cooked in a broth with a bit of sautéed onion and garlic and with added smoked pork for flavor. Served over rice, this is often called Hoppin’ John – a tradition on New Year’s Day to ensure good luck for the coming year. Peas also make a wonderful hummus and a great cold salad like in Cowboy Caviar.
Southern peas are a good source of plant-based protein and fiber. They are an excellent source of several B-complex vitamins and several important minerals including potassium which we often need to replenish in our hot summer months. Southern peas also have a social value. When I was growing up, the family – often the extended family if we had a really large harvest – would shell peas together under a shade tree. No TV, no radio but lots of conversation. Everything from current events to family history was fair game. It was a rite of passage to be old enough to help and I plan to keep this tradition going with my grandchildren.
We always have Southern peas in our summer garden. They are easy to grow, great tasting, good for you and good for the soil. If you haven’t tried them yet, I recommend that you do. Michael Vidrine
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor