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Black Eye & Other 'Southern Peas'


Q. On a recent show, a listener asked you about heirloom black eye pea seeds that had been given to him by a family member. You didn't seem to be very familiar with them, which is not surprising as they're a real deep South item (and you're a Northern city boy). I grew up enjoying them in Georgia; and although they are grown widely in Western Tennessee, they're not well known by my current East Tennessee neighbors.

You thought they might be more of a bean, because you did know that they require a long hot summer, while true peas are cool weather crops. Well, these {quote} 'peas' are of the genus Vigna and therefore not true beans (Phaseolus) or peas (Pisum). At one time they were grown mostly as cattle food, hence their common name, 'cowpeas'. But they are delicious people-food!

There are many varieties in addition to the famous 'black eye', many of which are definitely heirlooms: purple hull, pinkeye, cream, zipper cream (so named because the pods 'zip' open easily), lady peas (very small), and whippoorwill. The ones that are sort of rounded with flattened sides are often called 'crowder peas' because so many of them are jammed into each pod. Your suggestion to treat the seeds with a pea and bean inoculant was a good idea, but they don't need the trellis you suggested; they're more of a spreading type of crop.

Despite their sprawling habit, the pods are easy to harvest as they stick out sharply from the plants, which are very productive; each pod can contain 20 to 30 peas. If your caller planted all of his 54 seeds, he would get a LOT of peas. I harvest all we can use from a five-foot long double row in a raised bed. They can be dried for winter use as you said, and that is how black eye peas are most often found. But they are far better eaten fresh. Please share this information with your listeners.
    ---Virginia, in historic Jonesborough, just outside Johnson City, TN
A. Absolutely, Virginia; it's great info; my only regret is that you didn't write more. Then I could take the rest of the week off!

A quick look through my files reveals that we covered this topic in depth in a 1993 issue of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine during my time as Editor-in-Chief. You are correct that this crop is a notorious Southern delight; but, luckily, they can be grown just about anywhere in the United States. Although they are known as "Southern peas", the horticultural nod seems to go the other way, with every seed catalog, farming book and other reference I could find listing them under 'beans' instead of 'peas'.

Like peas and beans, they are legumes, which means that—with the aid of a specialized soil bacteria (the 'pea and bean inoculant' I recommended)—they can absorb nitrogen from the air and use it to essentially feed themselves. This also makes them an excellent cover crop or 'green manure', as their stored nitrogen enriches the soil when the plants are tilled back into the earth. They share their genus with mung beans (the classic source of bean sprouts); the fun-to-grow 'yard long' (or 'asparagus') bean; and the ornamental snail vine, which is grown for its fragrant purple and white flowers.

And Virginia—you actually missed one edible use. It turns out that you can eat these beauties at three stages in their development! You can pluck very young pods off the plants and eat them pod and all, like snow peas. You can harvest them at what's called the 'green shell' stage, when the peas have swelled up inside their pods but are still chewy and sweet. And, of course, you can let the pods dry on the vine and harvest the colorful legumes inside for cooking, storage and seed-saving. (Harvest dried peas promptly, or the pods may explode and shoot their crop all over your garden.)

Plant the seeds in warm soil in the Spring, water well, and you should be able to enjoy some edible pods about two months later, with the 'green shell' stage close behind. (Dry peas take three to four months to fully mature.) Virginia is indeed correct that these are not pole type plants, as I first thought. Their typical height is only around a foot and a half; but the plants sprawl wildly and need a growing area a good two or three feet wide.

Blackeyes are the most popular type, accounting for 2/3 of all Southern peas grown. They get their name from the black 'eye' spot on their white shells. Pinkeyes are similar, but have a dark red eye and are the variety of choice for those who enjoy "pot liquor"; the non-alcoholic (but tasty) liquid left behind after cooking. Early every season, our old friend and medicinal plant expert Dr. Jim ("Green Pharmacy") Duke, cooks up some freshly harvested first-of-the-season wild greens in pot liquor to create a "Spring tonic', a popular poverty food in his native South.

'Crowders' make a stronger, darker pot liquor. 'Creamers' make the lightest liquor, and may be the best choice for those in the far North, as they're the fastest type to mature. And although all of the beans produced by the Vigna family are safely edible for us humans, they are often collectively referred to as 'field peas' or 'cow peas' from their days as animal fodder.

Wikipedia has a great entry on them, with lots of information about how they're cooked and eaten—as soul food and in other ethnic cuisines.

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