Out of Africa/India/China – Cow Peas
(aka, Black Eyed Peas)
I have been gardening for well over 50 years and not once
had I grown black-eyed peas. In fact, I had not eaten them
or paid any particular attention to their origins and values.
I did purchase seed to grow as a green manure crop four years
ago, but they remain unplanted to this day.
So, what happened to awaken this interest in black-eyed peas?
Sandra, who sells the best eggs at the Las Cruces Farmer’s
Market, also sells green pod black-eyed peas in the spring
and fall. Since Sandra’s eggs are so good, I thought
maybe she had something green I should know about. We talked
one Saturday morning about the peas and the Chicago city girl
turned small-scale farmer confessed that she grew them because
her husband’s folks liked them so much – started
me to wondering. I bought a bag of green pods and began my
own journey into this very old food.
When I planted the heirloom variety Correnthies
from Mexico, I knew nothing about their soil needs, growth
patterns, or anything else. Since my gardening is often trial
and error exploration, I bought the seed and planted them
in what seemed like the right place and way. Well, they germinated
quickly and completely – so ended up too closely planted
(no, I did not thin them). So, I had this bed of black-eyed
peas planted on a 6” grid and all of them eagerly reaching
some weeks they appeared diseased with rumpled leaves,
where they should have smooth ones. They did outgrow
that problem and were soon standing 3’ tall and
beginning to sprawl, but without a single blossom or
even an indication that they intended to bloom and set
fruit. It didn’t take long to figure out that
the organic soil was too rich for them, and I only planned
then to make mulch and fix nitrogen for the next crop
in that bed.
they did eventually begin to bloom and produce pods
and then they got down right prolific, sprawling over
the tomatoes, the beans, and the eggplanst and climbing
up into the amaranth.
The indeterminate varieties will continue producing
blossoms and green pods even though they are loaded
with fully mature dry pods. It appears that will go
on until frost stops them.
The growth form of the indeterminate varieties is unusual
for pod forming legumes in that they produce continuously
from the same growth stem and will eventually produce
rows of dry pods terminated with blossoms and new pods.
Picking them requires some care not to damage the growth
||There are three edible stages
for the seedpods; one as a green bean, one as a shelly
bean and one as a dry bean, besides producing edible foliage.
Further research into their origin revealed other theories
from food historians about their country of origin and distribution.
I have extracted some of the published accounts for you, rather
than trying to summarize them.
"Cowpea...also called "long bean," "asparagus
bean," and "yard long bean" because of the
length of the pods, the cowpea (Vigna unguiculata or V.
sesquipedalis or V. sinensis) is, in fact, a bean. It has
been cultivated since prehistoric times in tropical Asia
(especially in India) and is a relative of the mung bean
and other Asian legumes, suggesting a South Asian origin
for the plant. However, China has been proposed as another
center of origin, and because the plant occurs in the wild
in many parts of Africa, that continent may have been yet
another cradle of the cowpea. It reached the New World via
the slave trade and is today cultivated throughout the tropical
and subtropical world. The cowpea comes in a number of varieties.
Black-eyed peas are perhaps the best known of these in the
United States...Crowder peas and field peas are other favorites,
especially in the South. Prior to the Civil war, cowpeas
were sometimes given to slaves but they were used mostly
animal fodder." ---Cambridge World History of Food,
Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge
University Press:Cambridge] 2000, Volume Two (p. 1764)
"Black-eyed peas...are the seeds of a plant of the
pea family...As their Latin name, Vigna sinesis suggests,
they originated in China, and are still widely used there
for food..." ---An A to Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto
[Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 30-1)
"Cowpea...originated in Africa but soon spread to Europe,
where it was known during the classical era, and to Asia,
where it became very popular. In the 16th century it was
taken to America by the Spanish." ---Oxford Companion
to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford]
1999 (p. 220)
"The cowpea (Sanskirit nishpava, Hindi lobia and showli,
Tamil karamani) came to India from West Africa...its first
mentioned as nishpava in Buddhist canonical literature (c.
400 BC)." ---A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food,
K.T. Achaya oxford University Press: Delhi] 1998 (p. 55)
"The black-eyed pea or cowpea (Vigna unguiculata-V.
sinensis), is believed by most to have come from Africa."
---Food in China: A Cultural and Historica Inquiry, Frederick
J. Simoons [CRC Press: Boca Raton FL] 1991 (p. 83)
The written record clearly states that there were many regional
varieties on cowpeas in Spain prior to that county’s
world explorations and the subsequent introduction of the
New World beans. What I find fascinating is that by the late
1600s cowpeas were in danger of extinction in Spain, having
been rapidly replaced by New World beans, which were not as
drought tolerant or disease resistant. Did they taste better,
or produce more edible food per acre, or did they just become
the new fashion food of 16th century Spain?
Cow peas undoubtedly arrived in the Americas long before
“slavery” and, in fact, have been introduced many
times, as many cultivars, from many sources, as you would
expect for a food plant as diverse, as old and as dependable
as cow peas. They did not leave home without them!
Where to Find Them
Commercial varieties are easily available from most seed suppliers.
For those rarer heirloom varieties, Baker
Creek Heirloom Seeds is the best place to begin. They
offer 30 varieties in their web seed catalog.
For those varieties grown by local southwest and Mexico farmers,
Native Seed SEARCH
is the place to go. They did a grow out of all 31 accessions
in their Cowpea collection this summer (06) and now offer
all unique varieties in their 2007 seed listing. You can also
purchase seeds of a wild cowpea from their 2005 grow out.
till next time,
Doña Ana Extension Master Gardener
printable version of this article (pdf)
garden well - eat local