I didn’t grow up in the South, far from it really, but I did grow up with a mother from Missouri who insisted that we eat black-eyed peas and greens for good luck every New Years Eve. Despite this tradition my knowledge of southern food, legumes especially, was limited to that once a year tradition, and boy have I had a lot to learn since coming to Kentucky. Fall beans, field beans, pole beans, greasy beans, cut-short beans, half runners, butter beans, the list goes on and on, I can’t even begin to cover them all. I felt that after two years I had a pretty good, or at least better than what I began with, understanding of the different beans grown in Southeast Kentucky and their many different uses, however I was once again surprised by the limits of my knowledge when a Grow Appalachia participant showed up to a meeting with a large bucket of cowpea seed to share.
There are different types of cowpeas but most are known as black-eyed peas, or field peas. cowpeas are a crop that came to the United States from Africa, and is now primarily grown in the southern United States and California. Though cowpeas may not be grown liberally throughout the U.S. they are an extremely important food crop in Asia, Africa, Southern Europe, and South and Central America. Cowpeas are a draught tolerant, warm weather crop that is very hardy and can withstand humidity and heat. Because most cowpeas are runner beans they do not need to be staked and will grow to cover the ground surrounding them therefore smothering out weeds and making any large upkeep efforts unnecessary. Not only are cowpeas extremely hard but they are also a very versatile crop that can be planted for three different purposes, as a food crop, as a nitrogen fixing cover crop, or as livestock feed.
Though most cowpeas that are grown as food crops are grown to full mature beans, that are then harvested, shelled out, and dried, they can really be used as a vegetable crop at all stages of growth. The young beans can be picked while they are still tender and used like a fresh green bean and the leaves of cowpeas are even edible as a young cooked green. Not only are the leaves edible but they are extremely good for you and have the highest percentage of calories from protein among all vegetarian foods.
Many of our Grow Appalachia participants took some cowpea seed to plant this season and we have more put away for next year, hopefully our crop will continue to produce well and in future seasons they may become a staple in many Grow Appalachia gardens!