Southern Peas

When I was gowing up as a southern farm boy, peas -- we called them "clay" peas -- were as prominent on our kitchen table as potatoes, cornbread, or greens. My mother cooked the small, brown peas until they swam in a dark liquor. She served them with our meals, and it was rare to have any left over. Now, after years of sampling the world's offerings, my love for this vegetable has not diminished.

If your exposure to southern peas (also called field peas or cowpeas) has been limited to the commercial canned, frozen, or dried variety, a much better flavor experience awaits you. Good fresh or home-frozen southern peas have a texture similar to well-prepared lima beans, but they possess a distinctly different, slightly smoky flavor.

Botanically speaking, southern peas (Vigna unguiculata) are not in the same family as beans or peas. These annual legumes were originally brought to North America by African slaves in the late 1600s or early 1700s. Here, they were first important as an animal forage and green manure crop. But early African Americans knew something that most of their white countrymen did not: southern peas are a great-tasting and nutritious human food.

In reasonable growing conditions, southern peas can yield as many pounds of food per foot of row as snap beans and significantly more than limas and garden ("English" in my vocabulary) peas.

Southern pea plants grow as vines, as bushes, or along the ground (prostrate). The pods grow 7-to 13-inches long and often contain as many as 20 peas. Although some older strains -- especially Clay, Iron, and Red Ripper -- are still available through enthusiastic private growers, plant breeders at many universities and agriculture experiment stations have developed varieties that combine the best growth, disease, and pest-resistance traits, with great taste and productivity. In contrast to the commercially prepared product, fresh or home-frozen southern peas have much more flavor and better texture. My favorite variety is 'Colossus', a great tasting, highly productive pea that practically hands you its long pods of marble-sized peas.

There are three types of southern peas: crowder, black-eyed, and cream. My father grew crowder peas, which have a robust flavor and produce a dark liquor when cooked. (Most crowder varieties "crowd" their seeds tightly together in the pod.) The more widely sold black-eyed peas have a less robust taste and produce a lighter-colored liquor. The "eye" marks an area around the point of attachment to the pod; that spot can also be pink, red, or maroon.

Cream, or conch, peas have the mildest flavor. They are more similar to dried beans than either crowder or black-eyed peas, and make a clear liquor when cooked.

Snap peas -- peas harvested while the pods are still tender and cooked without shelling -- are a type of cream pea. Snap peas are most popular where summers are too hot for snap beans.

Climate Considerations

It's understandable that many gardeners think that southern peas grow only in the southern states. It's not true. Home gardeners Jerry Moeller of Fort Covington, New York, Dave Ackerman of Fort Mills, Ontario and Jim Tjephene of Clarks Grove, Minnesota, have grown southern peas, and Dr. David Davis has managed, for many years, an active breeding program at the University of Minnesota.

Northern growers (as far north as USDA Hardiness Zone 4) will need to select varieties that germinate in cool soils and mature fast. Examples are Dr. Davis' Minnesota 13 and Minnesota 150 varieties. They sprout reliably in 55° to 60° F soil, much lower germination temperatures than for peas developed in the South and they mature earlier, too. Grow them in quick-warming, well-drained soil. You may also need to harvest -- as many southerners do -- at the earlier "green mature" stage.

Southern peas thrive in the middle of a hot, dry summer. During a recent dry period, our peas remained healthy and vigorous when beans and sweet corn wilted. Mary Jo Meinhardt reported that Pink Eye Purple Hull peas produced a crop in her Houston, Texas, garden without any rain or irrigation. But southern peas respond better to good growing conditions, including adequate moisture and less extreme temperatures.

How to Grow

Choose a warm, sunny site. For northern gardeners there are several ways to accomplish this: Select a well-drained soil on a south-facing slope, plant in raised beds, or use warming soil covers. Adding great quantities of coarse sand will permanently improve your soil's drainage; ground bark, compost or other fine organic material is the most practical remedy.

Southern peas grow best in slightly acid soil (6.0 to 6.5 pH). A soil test for acidity and available plant nutrients is, by far, the best way to determine soil mineral and nutrient needs. Normally, soil test results will include specific information for adjusting soil acidity and providing plant nutrients. Improper pH can prevent plants from absorbing needed nutrients, and cause soil particles to bind tightly.

As a member of the legume family, peas require less supplemental nitrogen, usually from 25 to 50 percent less, than other plants. Fertile soils normally don't require additional nutrients to produce a satisfactory pea crop. I've gardened in marginally fertile soil twice in the last seven years, and I found my peas benefitted from the approximately one pound of 5-10-10 fertilizer applied to each 50-foot row. More-fortunate gardeners with supplies of organic nutrients could get good results with soybean (or cottonseed) meal and wood ashes.

Sow southern peas when the soil is thoroughly warm, about the time that lima beans can be planted (or two weeks after the first corn goes in). Mine are planted in two stages. First, fertilizer is applied to the bottom of a wide 4-inch deep furrow. I make a second furrow 1-inch deep for the seed so that it is about 3 inches above and to the side of the fertilizer. If using ashes, I would mix half into soil at the bottom of my deep furrow, add the cotton seed or soy bean meal and side-dress with the remaining ashes after the plants have emerged, applying it about 3 inches from plant stems. I space the seed so that plants grow about 4 inches apart.

Southern pea varieties differ in height and breadth -- some try to mimic runaway pumpkin vines. Instead of the 46-inch width often recommended, I plant my Colossus in double rows 30 inches apart, and separate them from adjoining crops by about 42 inches. I know full well that the end of the season will find me wading through a low jungle of plant growth to do some hand weeding, but it still seems a practical use of garden space to me. If, however, you have vining peas like gardener Ron Joyner in Apex, North Carolina, you will follow his example and trellis them. Joyner makes two rows 30 inches apart and trellises them to one support. I suggest that you find a pea that you like, begin with a spacing something like that suggested here and see what works.

Controlling Pests

I've had great success with peas -- if you excuse the flood that wiped out one field and the pesky moles that cut another crop in half. Normally, controlling pests is my greatest challenge, and the pea curculio is my greatest enemy. This snout beetle punches holes in the baby pods to lay eggs, and uncontrolled, will ruin almost all the peas.

I've had to resort to spraying three times about six days apart beginning when the baby pods are 1 inch long. Then I learned of another approach, which I plan to try. Dr. W. L. Ogle, a retired professor of horticulture from Clemson University, simply grows his peas after the curculio has gone. Dr. Ogle, who helped develop the popular 'Hercules' and 'Colossus' varieties, plants his peas about the first of July.

Aphids are an occasional problem but are readily dislocated with a forceful water spray. If a strong shot of water is not possible, insecticidal soap will control these little pests. In other locations, thrips, stinkbugs, loopers, and the lessor corn borer have damaged pea crops. Insecticidal soaps will kill thrips, and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) will eliminate loopers. However, preventive measures may be the best treatment for borers. Take plant debris and the overwintering pests it harbors to a hot compost pile before planting your pea crop. Check with your extension agent for the least toxic control in your area if stinkbugs become an excessive problem.

Some soils, especially the warm, sandy loams that peas do well in, are often infested with root-knot nematodes. These tiny worms burrow into pea roots and do significant damage. Some good pea varieties are resistant to nematodes, but a better solution is to eliminate these pests by "solarizing" soil, or by planting cover crops such as annual ryegrass (fall or winter) or marigolds (summer). Again, your extension agent will have specific information for your area.

Some southern pea varieties are susceptible to mosaic viruses, powdery mildew, and leaf spot diseases. Elemental sulfur will control powdery mildew. To prevent problems with other diseases, purchase disease-free seed and control the aphids and thrips that spread harmful organisms among plants.


Mulches really were a blessing under my sprawling Colossus vines. With my warm soil, the peas grew well, even under thick mulches of newspapers weighted down by horse bedding. Those materials, though, would not have been beneficial if the soil was only marginally warm.


Like most growers, I harvest peas at the "green mature" stage, when the peas have reached full size but are still tender. This is usually accompanied by a definite change in pod color, but the most important clue is how the pod feels when squeezed gently. The pod will be more flexible and individual peas will be less firmly held. At this stage, the pods of readily shelled varieties will split along the "seam" under gentle side pressure.

Most of my peas are frozen for later use (cleaned, blanched for two minutes in boiling water, cooled in ice water, drained and put into freezer containers). But whether I begin with fresh or frozen peas, my method of cooking them is the essence of simplicity. The peas are covered in salted water, cooked until tender, seasoned with a pat of butter and served. Although I frequently empty the bowl, leftovers make a flavorful "meaty" base for vegetarian soup.

The classic southern dish "hoppin' John" is made with rice and cooked peas. The dish can be dressed with tomatoes, peppers (hot or sweet), and other ingredients too numerous to mention. Jeff Smith's, The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, (Morrow, 1987) and Justin Wilson's Homegrown Louisiana Cookin', (MacMillian, 1990) have both simple and elaborate recipes for this fine vegetable.

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