Southern pea (cowpea)

Vigna unguiculata: Southern Peas, Cowpeas, Crowders, Field Peas, Pink-eye, Purple Hull, Black-eye, Creamers; Haitian Creole:  Pwa

Basics:  Plant in full sun after danger of frost. 80-95 days. Water regularly to establish then ease off. Slow starter- will take off in heat of late summer and quickly produce. Less fertilizer for more pods; thrives on neglect. Can be intercropped with corn or sorghum for climbing support, and to fix nitrogen for surrounding plants; can stand alone. To harvest, remove from pods after peas fully formed; pods can be left to dry on the plant. Southern peas best cooked, fresh or dried.

Southern pea, "Red Ripper" flower

Southern pea, “Red Ripper” flower

Southern peas (Vigna unguiculata) come to the Americas from Africa, like many of the plants in the Caribbean Crossroads collection. Along with rice, sorghum, and millet, they were a staple for enslaved Africans on their forced journey across the Atlantic, cultivated by both slavers and the enslaved. They became elemental to the cuisine of the Caribbean and American South, where they are inseparable from the Southern table, a part of the mythology and lore of American food, and the varieties available to us now range from those that can be traced back to the seeds introduced from Africa, to specialty varieties cultivated for specific regions– including Oregon.

Southern peas are a type of bean that can be eaten fresh or dried, depending on the variety. They have been used as animal fodder and human staple for centuries. Food historian Michael Twitty has posted great descriptions of the categories of Southern or Field peas on his blog Afroculinaria.

Southern pea, "Red Ripper" dried in pod

Southern pea, “Red Ripper” dried in pod

While several varieties have been bred to grow best in Northern climes, those aren’t known for their flavor. For the Caribbean Crossroads collection, we wanted to offer traditional, more flavorful Southern peas, that could grow reasonably enough in our long hot growing season. We were pleasantly surprised in our trials that several varieties did very well- these included Pink Eye Purple Hull, a beautiful, delicious Louisiana heirloom black crowder called Rouge et Noir, a calico crowder called Ozark Razorback, and a Czech heirloom called Bohemian. The yields from some old varieties grown in the Willamette Valley were but a handful per plant, but nevertheless a welcome handful considering that these plants are not typically expected to do anything at all in the Pacific Northwest. Depending on the conditions in your garden, however, a good harvest can be had. Results varied widely among our volunteer gardeners in the 2014 trials, and some enjoyed larger yields than others. Like other dry beans, no matter which variety you chose, you’ll need more than one plant to make enough worth saving for a special meal.

Growing tips:

Southern peas start out slow. They will have a good head start under greenhouse conditions, and treated more like tomatoes and okra than a typical bush or pole bean.

You will not need to remove the plant from the coco fiber or coir pot when you move your Southern peas to the garden, but gently tear or cut the bottom and sides apart- this will help avoid transplant shock as the roots will not be disturbed, and allowed to acclimate to your garden soil as they grow through and around the coconut fiber. Be sure the surrounding soil moisture and level are even with the soil in the pot.

Plant in warm soil after danger of frost has passed, in full sun. Traditionally, Southern peas have been inter-cropped with sorghum or corn- the climbing types can use the taller plants as support as well as help improve the soil as nitrogen fixers. Be patient, they will spring into action at the peak of summer. They don’t need to be any more hot than any other summer season plant- they simply need the long, warm growing season we have been experiencing in most of the West for the last couple of years.

Southern peas are drought tolerant, and in fact will produce more beans if you don’t water as you would regular beans. They do need regular watering to get established– then they thrive on neglect. This is another reason they make a great companion plant to sorghum– you will be able to forget about watering the whole patch for most of the summer!

Here is a useful article on Southern peas by another food historian, William Woys Weaver:  Heirloom Cowpea Varieties. As Weaver mentions, cowpeas have been known mostly as fodder plants throughout America– we have excitedly picked up a bag of Purple Hull cowpeas from a surprised farmer near Salem, Oregon, who had never known that humans prized them for flavor, protein, and memories of grandma’s cooking in the South- he’d only ever grown them as fodder.

In Haitian Creole, Southern peas are called pwa, and, among many varieties of beans and peas, eaten almost daily.  See below for recipes!

Rouge et Noir, Louisiana heirloom crowders

Rouge et Noir, a Louisiana heirloom crowder pea


AKRA, ACCRA, Cowpea Fritters– typically enjoyed as an appetizer with heaping sides of pikliz.

Not to miss, especially if you make the all important pikliz with your Scotch Bonnet peppers, a real treat:  cowpea and taro root fritters or accra can be made with or without codfish, and similar recipes can be sourced throughout West Africa. Malanga, or taro root, is easily found in Asian markets, and sometimes regular groceries.

Here is a basic recipe, without fish, that includes black eyed peas- you can subsitute any of the cowpeas grown from the collection: Haitian Accra.

To make just the cowpea version, follow this recipe from Senegal, that is the basis for this type of fritter throughout the Caribbean. To make it Haitian-style, use the shrimp as suggested, or flaked codfish.  Instead of generic hot sauce, use the pikliz vinegar.


Rice and beans are important daily fare, and a famous Creole staple in Louisiana that has deep ties to Haitian food and culture.

Red beans and rice was but one of the many dishes to emerge from the Creole kitchen of the 1700s and 1800s, heavily influenced under the flags of both France and Spain. The food also took on aspects of African and Caribbean cuisines, as the African Creole slaves prepared them in the aromatic French Quarter kitchens of the day. The centuries-old Haitian recipe “Riz et Pois Rouges”—Rice and Red Beans—contains identical ingredients to that found in most Creole cookbooks today. In the Picayune cookbook, it’s called “Haricots Rouges au Riz.”

Diri ak Pwa recipes found online often list red beans or black beans- cowpeas are also used.  Haitian beans and rice are no ordinary beans and rice!  The flavors are slowly melded together, starting with the onions, and stand out for the use of cloves and other spices. Here is a red beans and rice basic recipe: Diri Kole ak Pwa

Another version of beans and rice is Sos Pwa, or a puree of any kind of bean with the specially cooked rice.

Haitian Creole cooking also introduced Jambalaya au Congri, or a wonderful version of Field peas and rice, to Louisiana.

You can also use your Southern Peas as you would any other bean in soups, or save them for a lucky New Year’s Day dish, Hoppin’ John.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s