Southern Peas (Black-Eyed Peas)
Plant of the Week
Southern Peas, Black-eyed Peas
Latin: Vigna unguiculata
American history books describe our country as a melting pot of peoples, cultures and customs. But the blast furnace of American commerce quickly tries to meld us into like-minded consumers; so we buy the same products, eat the same food, drive the same SUVs and see the same movies. Mass marketing is oh-so efficient.
Across the South serious assaults have been made on our uniqueness, but we still have pockets of resistance. While strip mall restaurants along the interstate serve us our "American" food, small mom-and-pop diners along the old state highways preserve the daily blue plate special and keep our Southern heritage alive. The best of these serve fresh, locally grown produce like southern peas.
The southern pea, Vigna unguiculata, has its own lexicon of names. Yankees call it the cowpea, a name never heard south of the lilac–crape myrtle line. Southerners also know it as the black-eyed-pea, the pink eye pea, the purple hull pea, the cream pea or the crowder. The genetics of this vegetable are extremely pliable and breeders have developed an array of plant sizes, forms and seed types to meet every need.
Modern southern peas are a fast-growing, free-standing, high-yielding crop that mostly reaches about knee high at maturity with long pods held above the foliage. The pod itself is either cream or purple in color and more or less pencil-shaped. Each pod is jammed with 20 or more peas, which are shelled as soon as the seeds reach full size and firmness, but before they
begin to dry down.
Southern peas made their way to our shores in 1675 from Jamaica, where they had been introduced by slave traders from Africa. The pea probably originated in India or southern Asia. It’s an important source of protein throughout much of India and Africa.
Dr. Teddy Morelock, a plant breeder with the Department of Horticulture at the University of Arkansas, heads the largest southern pea breeding program in the U.S. Morelock is a native of Greenland, Ark. He received his undergraduate training from the U of A and his doctorate in plant breeding from the University of Wisconsin in 1973.
Morelock’s breeding program evaluates about 5000 lines of southern peas each summer. He works closely with Siloam Spring-based Allen Canning Company in developing high-yielding, disease-resistant southern peas that can be easily machine harvested.
The pea breeding program began with the work of Dr. John Bowers in the 1950's. A dozen cultivars have been released since then. To date, Morelock has released six pea selections, including Excel, Early Acre and Early Scarlet, the most popular selection.
About 200,000 acres of southern peas are grown in the U.S., and about 10 percent of the acreage is planted to his introductions. In addition to southern peas, Morelock conducts an active spinach breeding program and is gearing up to produce the world’s hottest pepper.
Laurin Wheeler, a friend here in Fayetteville with considerable ability in the culinary arts, shared his recipe for what he calls Arkansas caviar – a cold southern pea salad:
- Boil 2 pounds of fresh southern peas until tender and then dump in cold water to cool. -Chop one cup of sweet onion and one bunch of cilantro and mix with the peas and refrigerate.
- Prepare a sauce of one-half cup each of olive oil, Spice Island red vinegar and lemon juice. Add as much finely chopped garlic as you dare. Add 2 tablespoons of ground cumin seed and salt and pepper to your taste.
- Pour the dressing over the peas just prior to serving.
Southern peas are warm-weather plants and should not be planted until the soil is warm and toasty, preferably above 65 degrees. Multiple plantings can be made at three-week intervals to have fresh peas all summer and fall. Space the seeds about 2 inches apart down the row. The rows should be 3-4 feet apart.
Southern peas are one vegetable that don’t require pampering. They thrive in our summer heat and stand up to the dry weather without a complaint. Most selections require 50-55 days from planting until harvest in the green pea stage. If dried peas are desired, 65-75 days is needed.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - August 24, 2001
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.