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Friday, January 8, 2016

Permaculture Elements: CowPeas/Southern Peas

If you think that "cowpeas" consist only of California Blackeye, then you have a sweet surprise in store. I've gone a little crazy in collecting them since they did so well last summer - now have over 25 cultivars in my collection.

The cowpea is a member of the bean family.  I have found them to be one of the "set it and forget it" crops for here in the mid-South.
Family: Fabaceae  Genus: Vigna  Species: unguiculata

Sample Cultivars: Colossus, Iron & Clay, Mayo Colima, Hog Brains

Other Names: Southern Peas, crowder peas, blackeyed peas, and also lubia, niebe, coupe or frijole

Hog Brains cow peas -
I've never seen a hog's brain, so I can't tell you if there are any real similarities!
(More photos below.)

Intrinsic Characteristics
  • Permaculture Zones: All, especially zones 2 and 3
  • Layers: Understory, herbaceous
  • Placement: gardens, main crop gardens, in the edges or during the establishment of food forests and orchards
  • Size: cultivars range in size from 2-3 foot "bush peas" to vigorous climbers that will top 10 feet.
  • Vegetable Type: Annual
  • Seed Saving: Easy

Outputs
Note that while some outputs don't need any additional inputs and can stand on their own, many of the outputs may or could.  Where space, time, and interest intersect, I will include them.
  • For the Bees - nectar and pollen
  • Fresh food for - People, chickens, hogs, horses, turkey, goats, deer, and other wildlife; both leaves, young "snap beans" and peas are edible.  Young "snap beans" taste similar to Asian long beans (they are related).  Whole vines can be uprooted at the end of the season and fed directly to livestock
  • Preserved for People - dried peas can be used in soups, freeze or can shelled fresh peas and/or young beans
  • Preserved for animal consumption - dried peas, dried stalks and leaves
  • Leaves - high nutrient and protein content when used fresh
  • Soil improvement - cowpeas are both a legume (nitrogen fixing) and has a deep tap root for soil improvement. I plant them around young trees, each tree getting its own cultivar
  • Seeds - Generally self-fertile, open pollinated seeds will come true to type
  • Vines - vines can be used for shade or to block views
Inputs
Note: some of these inputs may not be needed for your situation, but here are some things to get you started
  • Wood mulch and/or compost - I have found that this is generally not needed here in Middle Tennessee
  • Support- tall, vining types need strong support.  Vines on weak supports may topple the support
  • Wire fencing - or other protection, especially in zones 3, 4 and 5 where there is deer and other wildlife pressure

Other Things
  • Climate - are you in the hot, humid South where it rains "all the time"? They will love you.  Hot and dry - they like that too.  Are you in a short season area?  There are some  bush varieties that mature in 60 days.
  • Seed Saving - Select for plants that mature early, have lots of peas in the pod, and that look "true to type."  They are generally self-fertile and come true to type; however, separation of the cultivars may help prevent cross-pollination in a highly diverse environment where pollinator pressure is high.  Tag the pods you wish to keep for seeds and let them dry on the vine.

Flowers are born in small clusters of two or three.
Most of the ones I have grown start out with purple to lavender flowers that fade to cream or yellow by late morning.

Ants like cowpeas but don't appear to harm them.
I call this the "winged" stage - soon slender pods will emerge from the wings. The bean on the right is still a little young for stir fry, but might be tasty as a raw snack while gardening.

Just right for stir-fry!

 This set of cow peas are growing under an apple tree that was planted early in the Spring - they successfully mitigated the crabgrass, fixed nitrogen for the tree, and provided tasty eats, too!

Just about ready for fresh shelling peas.
I usually wait until the bean part starts changing color for fresh shelling peas.  In the case of "purple hulls," they will turn purple, so you'll know when to pick.

Pink Eye Purple Hulls in the foreground.
Fresh from the field - Dreaming of Summer!

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