All About Cowpeas

Give cowpeas a spot in your garden, and you’ll be rewarded with a multipurpose legume that has a lot to offer.

  • ‘Sea Island Red’ produces small pods that are hard to shell, but the terra-cotta peas are worth the effort.
    Photo by
  • A versatile crop, cowpeas can produce greens, snap beans, shell beans, and even dried beans.
    Photo by Getty Images/Beth Hall
  • Cowpeas do best in warm weather with full sunshine. Wait to plant until your soil is consistently above 65 degrees Fahrenheit for best results.
    Photo by
  • Cowpeas rarely cross-pollinate, making them easy candidates for seed saving. Space plants 10 to 20 feet apart and you can grow different cultivars in the same garden.
    Photo by
  • ‘Holstein,’ so named because of its coloring, is a bush cultivar, but the plants can grow tall enough to benefit from staking.
    Photo by
  • ‘Big Red Ripper,’ also known as ‘Mandy,’ is an excellent climber that produces a high yield.
    Photo by
  • Experiment with different varieties, such as purple hull types, to find a cowpea that you love.
    Photo by
  • Plant ‘Whippoorwill’ for a drought-tolerant cowpea that performs well in dry conditions.
    Photo by Brian Dunne
  • ‘White Whippoorwill’ produces an abundance of creamy-white peas.
    Photo by Brian Dunne

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.”

9/8/2018 8:19:40 AM

Just for the record, some heirloom vining varieties can get huge, much more than four feet tall. I’m growing a variety this year called Coat and Jacket and since getting established they’ve easily and consistently hit ten + feet. They’re bigger than all the pole bean varieties I tried. Amanda: The same reason that a handful of bean varieties (like Pinto) predominate in the marketplace. The black-eyed peas are easier to grow and harvest, higher yielding, more disease resistant, etc., than older varieties. Gardeners (like myself) and (very) small farmers can deal with the difficulties that come with heirlooms, but commercial growers tend to want/need something high-yielding and low maintenance.

8/27/2018 4:13:00 PM

Just curious, if the black-eyed peas are not as good as the older heirloom cultivars, why are black-eyed peas grown more now than the older cowpeas?

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters