Southern Pea (Cowpea)

The southern pea is most commonly referred to as a cowpea.  Although there are at least 11 recognized classifications of the southern pea, the most common are the field pea, crowder, black-eye, purple hull, and the cream pea.  These peas are rich in flavor, nutrients, and history. 

The cowpea is believed to have originated in Africa in an area which is now Nigeria.  It migrated to Egypt over 3,000 years ago and became a part of the European and Asian diets.  In fact, when the Pharohs roamed the earth, black-eyed peas were a symbol of good fortune and luck.  Since these peas were inexpensive and common, they believed that the consumption of black-eyed peas showed humility and would save them from the wrath of the gods. Southern peas were traded in the West Indies in the 17th century and ended up in the United States by way of slave trading.  It is thought that cowpeas were brought to this country aboard the slave ships where they were used to feed livestock and slaves on the voyage.  Once in the states, the southern pea became a major crop and was planted solely for the purpose of feeding the cattle.  This is how the name of cowpea originated.  According to legend, the union soldiers had such low regard for these vegetables that they didn’t expend the time or energy to destroy them as they did everything else.  Cowpeas were about the only thing left to ward off starvation so the southern people began eating them just to stay alive.  It didn’t take long for them to realize that this was a tasty dish and the cowpea gained a new respect and popularity in the south.
Southern peas may grow on bushes or the vine and are more a bean than a pea.  In fact, they are classified as a legume. Southern peas come in a variety of pod and seed color, size, shape, and flavor.   All are extremely high in protein.  These peas can be shelled and eaten fresh, picked green, or dried on the vine.  They have glossy green leaves with white or purple flowers.  The pods are similar to those of most beans.  Southern peas are classified mostly by the color of the hull, color of the seed and the seed eye, size of the seed, or the spacing of the seeds in the pod. The varieties of these peas are too numerous to count due to the fact that farmers save their southern pea seeds and, after a few years, forget the name of that particular variety so they will give them a new name. As the seed spreads, the same variety may be called by several different names.  In addition, plant breeders have bred many more varieties and strains of southern peas.

Probably the most well known of the southern peas is the black-eyed pea.  These peas are white with a very distinctive black mark where the seed attaches to the pea pod.  The black-eyed pea is known as a “lucky food” and is the preferred dish on New Year’s day.  Each pea represents coins so it is customary to eat as many as possible to bring prosperity for the coming year.  “Hoppin’ John, served over rice, is the traditional dish served on New Year’s day.

Another variety of southern pea is the field pea.  Field peas have hardy vines and have smaller seeds than some of the other varieties.  These are very tasteful and produce a dark “gravy” when cooked.

Crowder peas are distinctive in the fact that they are “crowded” into the shell.  This crowding causes the ends to be blunted.  The seeds have a higher starch content than other varieties of the southern pea and also produce a dark liquid when cooked.

Cream peas are smaller, bushier plants with light colored seeds.  Cream peas cook up light with a gravy that is light and clear.

Purple hull peas have a purple coloring on their pods.  Many times they are placed into another group of southern peas.  They cook up with a rich, dark gravy and have a pleasing taste.  These peas have become so popular that there is a festival in Emersen Arkansas in honor of the purple hull pea.  This festival is held the last weekend in June and is dedicated to the “one major delicacy grown in every local backyard garden” in the small community.

All southern pea varieties require warm soil of at least 60Ã�¿�ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃ�¿�àF for best germination. They should be planted four weeks after the average frost date. This is usually in late May or early June.  If planted while the soil is cooler, the plants will have problems with pests and viruses.  Seed should be planted approximately 1 inch deep with no more than 4 to 6 seeds per foot of row.  Rows should be spaced at least 2 feet apart.  Southern peas have gained a reputation for their ability to grow under very harsh conditions so there is usually no need for irrigation.  They require full sun and a well-drained soil.  Like most legumes, they are able to take nitrogen from the air and produce fertilizer.  Because of this they require little fertilizer.  In fact, fertilizing southern peas with a fertilizer high in nitrogen can stimulate vine growth but reduce the production of peas.

Some of the problems associated with growing southern peas include insects and diseases.  Insects, such as cowpea curculio, stink bugs, thrip, and aphids can feed on pea plants, causing damage. Diazinon or Malathion can be applied at seven to ten day intervals as the plants first begin to emerge to rid the plants of these pests. Fusarium wilt , southern blight, and root-knot nematodes are diseases that can cause yellowing of the leaves, poor pod production, and death to a plant. There are many varieties of southern peas that have resistance to these diseases. 

The peas are ready for harvesting when the seeds begin to swell in the pod but before the pods begin to lighten and dry.  They reach maturity between 65 – 125 days, depending on the variety of pea.  Southern peas are normally harvested at the mature green stage. This stage is characterized by fully grown seed that have not started to dry. Some prefer to harvest when they are fully mature, dry and hard.  They will last much longer this way.

Fresh picked pea pods are very sensitive to heat and should be kept as cool as possible after harvesting by moving them to shade and spreading them out.  Southern peas should be shelled and processed rapidly.  If shelling a large amount of peas you might consider purchasing a pea sheller.  There are a variety of these available on the market ranging from a manual model (Mr. Pea Sheller) to a higher end electric model (Taylor Little Pea Sheller).  These can cut many hours from the preparation of the peas for processing. One pound of unshelled peas will yield about 1 cup of cooked peas.  A bushel of unshelled peas (28 –30 pounds) will yield about 12-15 pint bags for freezing

Harvested peas can be eaten fresh, frozen, canned, or dried.   Fresh southern peas can be stored unshelled in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Green-shelled peas can be blanched, cooled in an ice water bath and stored in the freezer for up to 1 year. Dried shelled Southern peas can be stored in a cool, dry place for 10 to 12 months.  No matter what method is used, they are guaranteed to be a hit.  Very few foods are cholesterol free, high in protein, low in sodium, a good source of fiber and iron, and taste good too!  I’d say the cowpea is pretty close to being the “perfect food”.

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