It’s late June in St. Augustine and it’s the worst time of year to try to plant most vegetables. The exception is the delicious cowpea, aka “Southern pea,” which is actually no pea at all. It’s more like a bean.
We can still plant these through August, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. So, I’m growing some of my favorite and piloting some other heirloom varieties. Come along if you want to learn how to grow this Southern delicacy, which is inimitable when cooked fresh.
History of ‘cowpeas’
First off, Southern peas are a group of ancient legumes that are actually part of the bean family. They were first cultivated in Africa, according to the Purdue College of Agriculture website, and were a staple of ancient Greek and Roman diets. They were eventual brought here by enslaved Africans in order to help them stay healthy with familiar foods.
The cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) is one of the oldest domesticated crops. Cowpeas were brought to the Americas during the slave trade and are still grown throughout the Southern and Southwestern US, where they are also known as field peas, southern peas, or crowder peas, according to the international Ark of Taste, an organization that preserves the seeds of food crops with extensive and important cultural histories throughout the globe, and that are in danger of disappearing.
And yes, they do get the name ‘cowpea’ because they were used for forage and as cover crops to improve the soil because of their ability to transport nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil.
All that cow poop helped, too.
Even so, they’ve hung around so long and are enjoyed so widely because they are absolutely delicious, environmentally-friendly human food.
Types of cowpea
There are three popular types of Southern cowpeas on sale in the summer: crowder, cream, and black-eyed. Crowders have a robust flavor, cream peas are more mild, and the flavor of black-eyed peas is somewhere in between. There is another category, called asparagus or “yard-long” beans but that’s for another post here.
This year in 2019, I decided to try both cream and crowder types but left out the black-eyed, which I’ve always found common and, well, ‘meh.’ (If you disagree with me – let’s hear it! I challenge you to suggest a variety I will love, and will grow them and post the results. Or, even better tell me about your success!)
Either way, the varieties I tried are cream and crowder and are all heirlooms – open pollinated, true to type and at least 50 years old.
I started with my favorite, Zipper Cream. The fresh beans are incomparably delicious when picked and within a couple of days, and the seed dries and stores extremely well. The vines are also high yield. But this year, I added Blue Goose crowder peas, an old Southern heirloom that predates the 1860s and perhaps even the 1800s. The seeds look like little tan and gray speckles stones. I am also trying heirloom Colossus crowder peas, which got good reviews online.
In a week or two I will add heirloom White Acre peas, which are extremely popular in Florida and up here in St. Augustine. Unlike the others, they are a bush variety so require no staking.
I’ll take you through these varieties, where I bought the seed, how well they germinated, where they planted them and the resulting growth and yield. And, I can’t wait to show you pictures of their delicate and beautiful flowers!
In the meantime, here’s a look at the varieties. Note: I soaked most of the beans between 4 and 16 hours. The Zipper Cream and Blue Goose did well with the longer soaking but the Colossus peas started to swell until they burst so I drained them after about 4 hours.
Blue Goose cowpeas intrigued me. They are small, beautiful and speckled and have a much longer history than Zipper Cream. In fact, I couldn’t pin down the exact origin or entry point into this country. Nearly all cowpeas came originally from sub-Saharan Africa, i.e. the part of the continent south of Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco and were brought to the Americas in the 1600s.
The closest I could get to finding an origin of Blue Goose were descriptions of it that described it as an old Southern heirloom developed before 1860 or perhaps before 1800. Once I soaked them, they swelled enormously.
They were also the first to emerge in my raised bed. The picture below was taken in a south and east facing red bed on June 30, 2019.
Zipper Cream Southern peas have been my favorite so far. The peas, which are heirloom, were developed not too far from St. Augustine in Gainesville, Fla. by the Experiment Station in 1972, before I was born. (Don’t ask me when that was; a lady never tells her age).
I bought the seeds from one of my favorite online vendors, which caters to plants for the South. Here, the dried peas are shown before being soaked.
They were the last to emerge out of the Blue Goose, Zipper Cream and Colossus but trailed the other two by only a day.
This variety was bred by the South Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station and Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina and released in 1971 as a stabilized cross between ‘South Carolina 59-11’ and ‘Floricream,’ according to the Victory Seeds website. Technically, a variety has to be at least 50 years old, open-pollinated and true to type to be considered an heirloom. This one is almost there, and had great germination, emerging around the same time as Blue Goose.
I bought the seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for $2.75 plus shipping for 94 seeds. Note: While I love Southern Exposure for its tailor-made Southern varieties, I recommend placing all of your seed orders together as shipping is quite expensive – more than a pack of seeds so that pack of humble cowpeas could end up costing more than double.
Colossus also germinated in a sandy, neglected plot beneath my windows. I’m hoping to improve the patch through planting the cowpeas, which improve the soil.
I also decided to plant a ‘lady pea’ variety that is extremely popular in Florida. White Acre peas are a subset of cream peas and are named after the soil they grow on. They’re a Florida favorite to grow, and fly out of local vegetable stands. I figured I would not only grow them (and save myself $17 a gallon for the fresh peas) but also see if I could grow enough to sell or barter. See here for the full post about its history and how to grow them.
I started out with an 8-foot-by-4-foot raised bed that is 6 inches deep and added regular potting soil (no fertilizer, from Dollar General at $2.50 a bag), Black Kow cow manure ($6 a bag) and on top, Black Gold Garden soil. After I planted the beans, I dusted with bone meal. Southern peas don’t need much extra nitrogen – that causes the bushes to get large and the yield to drop since the legumes fix nitrogen in the soil naturally.
However, they do need the phosphorus from the meal. I dusted the top and watered in well. Scavenging animals can be attracted to the meal – which is made of steamed and ground animal bones, according to the San Francisco Chronicle website, SFGate. (If it sounds grisly – and it is – keep in mind the ancestors of people all over the world have been fertilizing their fields with this and other even grosser stuff for millennia.)
I wanted to make sure it was well absorbed before nightfall.
I added a second site – an unused patch of grass beneath east-facing windows. The sand soil there is in need of serious amendment, despite copious application of compost and soil in years past. I plan to plant Red Russian kale this fall as a succession crop. The kale loves this spot, and as the University of Florida agricultural extension will tell you (ad infinitum) ‘right plant, right place.’ It doesn’t matter how hardy the specimen or how much love and attention you give it, it won’t thrive unless it gets the right amount of sun and shade.
I’ve grown Dragon’s Tongue wax beans here – a striking, purple streaked old heirloom some sources say date back to the 1700s. I got great yields of the thick, long pods and enjoyed them for months. I’m hoping the Southern peas will be as happy in the same spot.
Here’s the raised bed a month later.
By August 2, we had our first field peas! Colossus beat all four varieties to the fruit.
UPDATE: If you are growing cowpeas, watch out for ground and mourning doves. I caught two mourning doves trying to dine on my sprouting seeds! (And they didn’t even leave a partridge in a pear tree)