Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), also known as Southern peas or field peas, are a versatile crop — so versatile, they could be considered the vegetable version of a Swiss army knife. They can produce nutritious greens, snap beans, shell beans, and even dry beans, which can be ground into flour for a gluten-free grain substitute.
Beyond the table, cowpeas are useful as ground cover, weed suppression, green manure, and forage for livestock. The vines can even be mown and baled as hay, the matured bean pods adding extra nutrition. They flourish in poor, dry soils, and, being legumes, leave the soil richer than they find it.
Some varieties vine, while others bush, but all do well in full sun and high temperatures, making them perfect for Southern, Midwestern, and West Coast gardens and fields. Even extremely thick humidity doesn’t seem to bother cowpeas much. Only waterlogged soil and cold temperatures can stop these powerhouse plants.
History of Cowpeas
Cowpeas are beans, not true peas like the English pea (Pisum sativum), but they’ve been called peas for so long that there’s no going back now. How long? No one really knows, but people have been growing them for at least five millennia. While ancient Middle Eastern farmers were busy tending to the wild grasses that would yield barley and wheat, their African counterparts were doing the same with wild Vigna vines, sorghum, and millet.
Carried over on slave ships, cowpeas arrived on American shores sometime in the late 1600s. They quickly found a new home in the South, thriving in soil and climate conditions similar to their African origins. Planters noticed how well the vines flourished in fields worn out and laid to waste by intensive cotton cropping. A short while later, they no doubt noticed the soil regaining its lost vigor, thanks to the nitrogen-fixing nature of leguminous cowpeas.
“The oldest varieties — the ancient African landraces — had several functions,” says David Shields, chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and professor of English at the University of South Carolina. “The clay pea and the cowpea were cattle fodder, the stalks and foliage cured as pea hay, and the pods added for nutrition. The crowder peas were good eats, and also good nitrogen fixers, and found themselves in many crop rotation schemes following corn or cotton as soil replenishment. The ‘Lady’ pea was the most delicate of cowpeas; its white coloration, smooth texture, and mild sweetness made it the most genteel of peas. The speckled ‘Whippoorwill’ was the great all-arounder, rivaled only by the black-eyed pea in the 19th century in popular esteem.”
Cowpeas even became the basis of the New Year’s tradition “Hoppin’ John” — a dish of rice, cowpeas, and pork, often served with greens and cornbread — said to bring a prosperous year to those who eat it. Modern tradition dictates that Hoppin’ John be made with canned black-eyed peas and white rice. A lack of historical evidence suggests this has more to do with the commercial availability of black-eyed peas and white rice than with true tradition. Older recipes call for local cultivars, such as ‘Sea Island Red’ cowpeas and ‘Carolina Gold’ rice, along with regional heirloom corn for the bread.
Even though black-eyed peas are more popular, cowpea cultivars such as ‘Big Red Ripper,’ ‘Whippoorwill,’ ‘Sea Island Red,’ and ‘Mississippi Silver’ have more flavor, better texture, and richer character by far. They’re also a lot harder to find. You probably won’t see bags or cans of ‘Whippoorwill’ peas at the supermarket, and maybe not even at the farmers market or farm stand, unless you’re lucky enough to live near someone growing these heirloom treasures. Sold frozen, canned, and dried in grocery stores throughout the country, black-eyed types may be easier to come by, but they’re also mushy and bland, unlike their flavorful siblings.
If you have a hard time finding those exceptional cultivars at the supermarket or local farmers market, your best option is to grow them. Fortunately, cowpeas thrive in conditions that would lay lesser vegetables to waste. The trick is to provide them with conditions similar to their North African home: hot and dry, with soil on the thin side.
Cowpeas can tolerate a wide range of soils, from acidic to neutral, but perform poorly in alkaline soils. Other than that, they aren’t too picky. They grow well in thin to average soils, and don’t need to be fertilized. They do appreciate an early feeding of compost for a kick-start, but it really isn’t necessary. Treating cowpeas with rhizobium inoculant is also recommended, but not required.
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to plant your peas in the spring, as they won’t sprout in soil much cooler than 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and are at severe risk of rotting in cold soil. Planting later is better than early, even as late as the end of June. Most cowpeas need a season of 80 to 90 days for pods to mature, and the vines catch up quickly in warm weather.
Space cowpea seeds 4 to 8 inches apart in the row, and plan to thin them to 1 foot apart as they grow, with at least 30 inches between rows. Alternately, plant bushing varieties in beds with 8 to 12 inches of space between seeds in all directions. Many vining cowpeas top out at 4 feet in height, so plan to construct trellises that are 5 or 6 feet tall to support them. Control weed competition with mulch or light cultivation, taking care not to disturb or damage the vines’ roots.
Deer, rabbits, and groundhogs find cowpea vines irresistible, so plan on fencing your patch, or have your dog patrol the area. The same insect pests that feed on other bean crops also target cowpeas, so be on the lookout for Mexican bean beetles, cowpea curculio beetles, aphids, and various stink bugs. Hand-pick larger pests into a jar of soapy water, and encourage ladybird beetles and lacewings in your yard to control the smaller pests.
Southern growers may encounter ground-dwelling nematode worms, such as root-knot nematode, as well as aboveground nematodes. Crop rotation and weed control help counter these microscopic pests.
Cowpeas can be affected by several wilts, blights, and mildews, most often caused by damp leaves, high humidity, or soil splashing onto the foliage. Avoid working with wet plants, promote good airflow, mulch the ground surrounding the plants, and remove old vines at the end of the season to limit these fungal diseases. Select resistant cultivars, such as ‘Mississippi Silver,’ to further reduce disease pressures.
Cowpeas bring so much to the table that it’s hard to pick their best feature. Don’t just settle on growing basic black-eyed peas. Heirloom cowpeas are out there, waiting to be found. Choose a truly memorable cultivar for your garden, and discover the ancient and rich world of cowpeas the following season.
Cultivars to Try
‘Big Red Ripper’ is a large-seeded cowpea believed to have originated in Arkansas. It’s a vining variety that requires trellising. It produces large red pods filled with an average of 15 seeds per pod. At 140 days for dry peas, ‘Big Red Ripper’ is a long-season variety.
‘Mississippi Silver,’ sometimes called ‘Mississippi Silverskin’ or ‘Mississippi Silver Crowder,’ has a shorter season, needing 60 to 90 days to reach maturity. It’s a bush variety, producing silvery, smooth-skinned pods, 6 to 7 inches long, filled with light green to cream-colored peas with flattened ends that dry to a rich brown. ‘Mississippi Silver’ is resistant to root-knot nematodes and fusarium wilt.
‘Whippoorwill’ is a 75-day cultivar with small, speckled, light brown seeds borne in 7- to 9-inch pods on 5-foot climbing vines.
‘Sea Island Red’ produces “half runner” vines, somewhere between a bush and a climbing vine. The peas are a pleasing terra-cotta red with a small black eye. The pods are small and hard to shell, but the peas are worth the effort.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. An “accidental historian,” he loves discovering the details and secrets of everyday living from years past. Being able to grow a little of that history makes it all come together.