You are in for a treat this summer–don’t wait until New Year’s Day feasting. If you have “black-eye-pea prejudice,” or if you have never tasted a FRESH black-eye-pea, read on! Black-eyes will be a reward for your palate–and positive reinforcement for the novice gardener. First, action is needed: With monsoon moisture it is time to get those seeds in the ground! Tia Marta here to share some hot-weather garden advice, recipe inspiration, with some historical spice, about the sweet and nutritious black-eye “pea” Vigna unguiculata.
Lovely foliage, flowers, and pods of Tohono O’odham native black-eye pea U’us Mu:n maturing in a monsoon timeline garden at Mission Garden, Tucson (MABurgess photo)
A rose by any other name…..Really it’s not a pea at all! (Here in Baja Arizona, true peas, English peas, Pisum sativum, must be planted in the cool season.) Nor is black-eye a common bean either. Other monikers for this frijol-like legume are cowpea (it used to be cow forage), and crowder pea (its fat seeds are packed against each other in the pod.) Spanish called them frijoles de carete. Cowpea varieties that became part of Chinese cuisine are called long beans. The generic term for edible legumes including cowpeas is pulses, a term that nutritionists tend to use.
An amazing relative of cowpea– Chinese long bean–growing at Mission Garden in the new Chinese Timeline Garden, a Wong Family heirloom planted by Nancy Tom (DenaCowan photo)
Cowpeas were first domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa a few thousand years ago and made it on their agricultural-culinary odyssey to Spain during the Middle Ages, according to historian William Dunmire. Cowpea came to the New World with Spanish explorers and arrived in the American Southwest with Padre Kino around 1706 (according to Bolton’s 1948 translation of Kino’s journals.) Native People of what is now northwest Mexico and the US Borderlands quickly adopted this sweet, nutritious food. It dovetailed perfectly into their traditional summer temporal gardens, their bean staples, and their taste buds.
Over years of selection for color, flavor, and adaptation to arid agriculture, the Mayo, Pima Bajo, Tarahumara and other Native farmers shaped this Old World gift into different colorfully-patterned landraces. The Tohono O’odham, with selection, altered their adopted variety into a spotted vivid black and white bean, naming it U’us Mu:n or “sticks-bean” because the pods are long, straight or curvy, and clustered. The Guarijio and Mountain Pima (now of Sonora) named theirs Yori Muni meaning “foreigner’s bean” as yori is slang for something akin to “gringo.” (Names can reveal alot.) Mexican and Anglo pioneers and later African-Americans continued to bring “new” varieties of black-eye peas into the Baja Arizona borderlands–which all thrive in our humid hot summers.
A rich harvest of Tohono O’odham U’us Mu:n grown at Mission Garden from seed saved by NativeSeedsSEARCH (MABurgess photo)
Your monsoon garden is bound for success choosing from NativeSeedsSEARCH’s many heirloom cowpea varieties –known success stories in the Southwest. The seeds will be up in no time and flowering, great for gardening with kids. Down below soil level cowpea roots will be feeding the earth with nitrogen. Above ground they feed us well. When pods are plump with seed, before they dry, harvest and cook the seeds fresh. When you taste fresh black-eyes your eyes will roll back in ecstasy as your tummy goes “whoopee!” After they dry, they can be kept for months, even years, but New Year’s is a good time to share them for good luck.
A prolific producer is pioneer heirloom Bisbee cowpea saved by NativeSeeds/SEARCH, available at the NSS Store (NativeSeeds/SEARCH photo)
My favorite dish is a simple compote of cowpeas with garden vegetables. As cooking beans goes, cowpeas are much speedier than common beans, as they do not need to be presoaked, although soaking an hour before cooking does reduce cooking time. I quick-sauté my onions, garlic, carrots and celery in a little olive oil, add them to cowpeas and soak-water in a dark lidded saucepan, and put them in the solar oven. They will be done and smelling delightful in 2-3 hours, depending on the summer or winter sun during the brighter time of day. You can also make a hummus with black-eyes for a cool summertime dip.
Black-eye pea compote with garden vegetables –cooked in the solar oven! (MABurgess photo)
We grew a red cowpea heirloom from NativeSeedsSEARCH one summer that had foot-long straight pods. The refreshing green mass of foliage, flowers and pods sprawled across the garden and kept producing for weeks.
For a rainbow of cowpea ideas for your garden, go to www.nativeseeds.org, click on shop then enter cowpeas in the search box, or go directly to the NativeSeeds/SEARCH store, 3061 N Campbell and browse for instant gratification. Prep your soil, pop seeds in the ground, add water and get ready for botanical action. By late August you will be pleasing palates with your own home-grown cowpeas, black-eyes, crowders, u’us mu:n–fabulous food by whatever name you want to give them! Savor Sister Jacqueline Soule discusses growing beans in our area on her site, Gardening With Soule here.
The colorful and reliable Tohono O’odham cowpea in the NSS Conservation Garden–U’us Mu:n (NativeSeeds/SEARCH photo)
Can you hardly wait to have such greenery and goodness in your garden? All it takes is some seeds in the ground! You can find even more detailed info about cowpeas at the NativeSeedsSEARCH blog and scroll down to May 14, 2018 post. Tia Marta wishing you happy and prolific gardening with the monsoons!
Mosaic of cowpeas created by NativeSeedsSEARCH aficionados (credit NSS)