I’ve grown southern peas twice, with vastly different results. Each garden year I try to grow something that’s new to me, mainly to see how it grows. The first time I grew southern peas, they sprawled all over the bed. The second time they remained primly upright, although I expected them to sprawl. Southern friends were no help, saying some sprawled, others didn’t.
Southern peas are known as cowpeas, field peas, crowder peas, and black-eyed peas, botanically known as Vigna unguiculata, black-eyed peas as Vigna unguiculata unguiculata. The peas are not really peas, they’re beans. They will grow here if you’ll wait until the soil is warm (at least a month after the last expected frost). But if you live in an area where rattlesnakes may be present, I would not grow them unless you provide a trellis and train them to grow upward, not along the ground, because they sprawl so densely you can’t see what’s under the vines. Not all varieties do sprawl. Read the vendor’s description of the variety, and if the growth information isn’t available, I’d go after a variety whose growth habit is given.
Unguiculata refers to the clawlike stalks on flower petals. Looking at the botanical name Vigna should tell you that these tiny beans will not cross with regular beans, because the latter are Phaseolus vulgaris, New World beans. Different genus, no crossing.
Cowpeas, thought to be so-called because they were fed to cattle, may be native to Asia, and migrated to Africa before slaves were brought to this country. Wikipedia indicates charred cowpeas dated to the second millenium BCE have been found in Africa, so the Asian origin may be incorrect. Slaves are thought to have brought seeds here, although Southern Exposure Seed Exchange carries one variety they claim is a native of the American Southwest: called Tohono O’odham (Papago). That vendor is usually quite knowledgeable, but Native Seeds/SEARCH claims all cowpeas (including the Tohono O’odham) were imported from Africa, and are tolerant to high heat. Southern Exposure carries 20 varieties, Native Seeds/SEARCH carries ten varieties, the only duplicate of SESE’s is the Tohono O’odham.
Southern peas are beans, not peas, in spite of their name, and will not cross with any other legume, except perhaps the so-called “yard-long” varieties, also of the genus Vigna. Those varieties that have a distinctive spot around the hilum (scar where the bean had been attached to the pod) are known as “black-eyed peas,” and those that are crowded inside the pod are known as “crowder” peas.
The peas (beans) are tiny, and are borne severally in long slender pods. They tolerate some shade (such as interplanting), but require 60 to 90 days of growing season, good drainage, and a slightly acidic soil, pH 5.5-6.5. They even thrive in very sandy soil. As legumes, they convert atmospheric nitrogen to soil, supplying their own fertilizer. Do not supply nitrogen, lest it produce a lot of foliage and few pods. Southern peas are drought-tolerant, but succumb easily to frost.
Pods range in size from six to nine inches long. The tiny peas/beans may be harvested fresh or dry, the pods easily shattering when dry. I suspect the black-eyed peas are the largest. Leaves, green pods and green peas may all be consumed, as well as the dried peas. They are extremely nutritious, providing good protein, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and vitamin B-6, while low in fat and sugar. They may be boiled, frozen, canned or dried. Leaves may be used as a potherb.
The sprawling varieties are usually hugely productive, reason for their being grown so much in Africa, India and Central and South America, producing almost a third of total food legume production in arable tropics.
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