Southern peas is a name that encompasses all of the different types of cowpeas: California Blackeye (maybe the most famous, but far from the best), Pink Eye Purple Hull, Mississippi Silver, and seemingly endless others. Other potentially confusing generic names for this group include protepeas, crowder peas and cream peas (not creamed peas). Generally, the individual varieties are classified according to either the appearance of the pea (black-eyed pea, pinkeye), or the color of the hull (purple hull, silverskin).
The name refers to their traditional popularity in the Deep South, and for good reason. Southern peas, unlike what southerners call “English” peas, love the heat and humidity of this region. English peas are a marginal crop for late winter through spring in our area, but Southern peas grow and produce heavily through summer, well into fall.
A Tough Customer
In addition to their love of the subtropical weather conditions of the Deep South, southern peas seemingly have no real pests. Mexican bean beetles may chew a few leaves on the cowpeas, but the damage done is nothing in comparison to the decimated snap beans. Along the same lines, when Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, stinkbugs, whiteflies, kudzu bugs and others have arisen to problematic levels in adjacent crops, I have never had an instance of infestations crossing over to the cowpeas. Though in some areas fusarium wilt, root knot nematode or viruses may be a problem, I have not experienced these issues.
Use Them In Your Garden
Southern peas are a really good summer vegetable garden crop, even if you don’t eat the peas. In addition to the variety they can bring to meals, they perform a variety of services for the garden ecosystem. First and foremost, southern peas are nitrogen fixing legumes which improve soil fertility. This is especially helpful in summer when soil nitrogen is especially volatile. Secondly, they may be planted in the hottest, driest part of summer to serve as a succession cover crop whose rapid growth effectively suppresses weeds. Cover cropping protects the soil against erosion as well. Finally, their beautiful, showy flowers invite pollinators to the garden, benefiting adjacent crops.
Planting Southern Peas
Like their familiar counterparts sweet potatoes and okra, southern peas require warm soil. Planting them late is a better strategy than planting early because a late frost will kill the tender seedlings. The many varieties of southern peas are categorized as either “running” or “bush” types, with the bush types being better for smaller spaces. Since even the bush varieties can grow quite large, it is important to pay close attention to the recommended spacing for your chosen variety. Once planted, they germinate rapidly and begin producing pods within six weeks or so.
Eating Southern Peas
The diversity of peas allows for a diversity of uses. They may be used in the green pod stage, before the peas grow to fill the pod, in the same way as snap beans. In fact the Chinese long bean (aka asparagus bean, yard long bean) is a variety of the cowpea species that is grown for this very purpose. Southern peas may also be allowed to develop fully and harvested for fresh use. These fresh shelled peas have a completely different flavor and texture compared with the widely used dried peas. Finally, the dried peas are used similarly to dry beans (but with less soaking).