Fans of the late entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford remember well his catch-phrase: "Bless your pea-pickin' heart." History does not record how many peas Mr. Ford actually harvested himself, but chances are most of them would have been picked in June. The association of this vegetable with the sixth month of the year is so common that June pea often is used as a synonym for garden pea.
Few things can match the culinary delight of fresh peas from the family garden. As is the case with sweet corn, peas are tastiest immediately after being picked. However, peas represent an example of a food that requires a bit of work before it can be enjoyed but, for most, hulling peas is a labor of love because of the end results. In addition to being almost unbearably delectable, peas provide valuable vitamins and minerals to the human diet while possessing only modest caloric content.
The word "pea" was derived from the Latin word pisum which (later) was introduced into the English language as pease. The nursery rhyme "pease porridge hot" makes reference to what we today call garden pea. Since people often associated a word ending with "s" as being plural, pea gradually became the singular notation. The term pea is somewhat generic and can refer to different species in the Fabaceae, family depending on country or region. Black-eyed pea, pigeon pea and cow pea are examples of species that commonly are referred to as peas in the areas they are popular. For most, however, pea refers to Pisum sativum, or garden pea. Snap pea and snow (sugar) pea represent biotypes of the species whose entire pod can be consumed when harvested at an early stage of maturity.
The primary center of origin for pea is believed to be Middle Asia, from northwest India through Afghanistan. Cultivation of peas dates back 5000 years to the Bronze Age. It probably was first grown for its dried seed and used as pulse crops are used today. It is known the Greeks and Romans grew peas before the Christian era, but writings indicate they held no special favor for the crop. Ancient types of peas probably were much smaller, darker colored and differed otherwise from modern garden types.
The first mention in the literature of "green peas" (eaten immature) came after the Norman Conquest of England. By the 12th century, peas were listed among the food crops stored in a convent near London. In the 16th century, King Henry II of France married Catherine de Medici of Italy. She brought with her to France many of her favorite foods from Italy, including small peas the French called petit pois. They were quite different from the dried peas the French associated with peasant fare.
By the end of the 17th century peas were a rare delicacy among the elite of France and handsome prices were reportedly paid for them. The obsession people of that era had for peas is reflected in the writing of Madame de Maintenon (second wife of King Louis XIV) who noted, "Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness".
During this time, new varieties of peas were developed in England giving rise to "English pea" as another synonym for garden pea. It is reported that Thomas Jefferson grew over 30 varieties of peas at Monticello and, soon thereafter, peas became a staple in the diet of many Americans.
Garden pea is a cool-season crop that tolerates light frosts and has the ability to germinate in relatively cool soil temperatures. Since warm summer temperatures (≥ 80 degrees F.) adversely affect both yield and quality, planting should be done early in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Peas prefer a well-drained garden loam with a pH of between 6.0 and 6.5. Sow seeds directly in the soil about one inch deep and two inches apart in rows spaced between 18 and 24 inches apart. Taller varieties will need three feet between rows as well as some method of trellising or support.
Fertilizer application should be based on soil tests and done before seeds are planted. Consistent with other legumes, peas (with the aid of symbiotic bacteria) have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. However, if plants appear chlorotic after pods begin to set, a side dressing of nitrogen may be necessary. Peas prefer soil that is kept uniformly moist but not wet.
Although peas are relatively pest free, aphids, leafhoppers, and seed corn maggots can be problematic. Diseases that can be problematic include fusarium wilt, powdery mildew as well as root and seed rot. The latter can be especially troublesome in poorly drained soil or during wet springs. Rotating planting location in the garden from year-to-year is helpful in the management of diseases of peas.
Since peas do not compete well with weeds the latter must be controlled. Hand weeding and cultivation probably are the most logical way to control weeds in home garden plantings. For those who want to use herbicides, trifluralin (Treflan®) and pendimethalin (Prowl®) are labeled for weed control in peas.
Depending on cultivar, planting date and seasonal temperatures, peas usually are ready for harvest about the middle of June. Harvest normally lasts for about two weeks. Timing the harvest of peas is critical for top eating quality. Pick the pods as soon as they have swollen (appear round). Peas allowed to mature on the plant too long tend to convert sugars to starch, thus reducing their sweetness.
There are several cultivars of garden pea that do well in our area. Popular choices include Spring (57 days; 22 inches tall), Sparkle (60 days; 18 inches tall), Little Marvel (63 days; 18 inches tall), Lincoln (67 days; 30 inches tall), Green Arrow (68 days; 28 inches tall), Bolero (69 days; 28 inches tall), and Wando (70 days; 30 inches tall). Taller cultivars require trellising of some sort, while shorter one (18 inches tall) can be grown without.
As previously mentioned, peas are a good source of certain vitamins and minerals as well as insoluble dietary fiber. The latter has been shown to reduce cholesterol. One-half cup of cooked peas contains the following nutrients: 67 calories, 2.4 grams dietary fiber, 4.3 grams protein, 12.5 grams carbohydrates, 478 IU vitamin A, 11.4 mg. vitamin C, 50.7 micrograms folic acid, 1.2 mg iron, 217 mg potassium and 31 mg magnesium.
Peas from the garden freeze exceptionally well but must be blanched in order to keep enzymes and bacteria from destroying nutrients and changing color, flavor and texture. Blanching is accomplished by immersing peas in boiling water for about two minutes followed by cooling them in ice water.
Fresh or frozen, peas may be prepared in a number of different ways or combined with a variety of dishes. Simply put, (lightly) buttered peas fresh from the garden is one of life's unique pleasures.
REVISED: February 21, 2017