Although peas are common in salads, pot pies, and soups, people still ask, “What is a pea?” When talking about peas, you can refer to the small seed grown inside the Pisum sativum fruit pods, or peas can refer to the fruit pod itself.
Botanically, the pods that grow from the vining plants are fruits. They are classified because the pods contain seeds and develop from the flower’s ovary. This classification makes sense if you compare this definition to what we commonly think of as fruits (like pomegranates). Despite this, peas, both the seed and the pods, are used in culinary dishes as if they were vegetables. Peas have a versatile flavor profile by type, and their sweet yet savory taste allows them to be used in various dishes.
When it comes to peas found for sale in the grocery store, it’s most common to find green peas; however, some pods produce yellow peas. Purple peas may be rare depending on what part of the world you’re in, but many believe purple peas are native to Africa. Continue reading to find answers to questions like where did peas originate?
What are Peas?
Peas are grown from annual plants and, after harvest, are sold fresh, frozen, or canned. Some pea varieties produce edible pods that are cooked and used similarly to green beans. Peas are a good source of protein and fiber and are easy plants to grow.
Where do Peas Come from?
Peas are one of the earliest recorded cultivated crops, with roots in the Mediterranean and Near East, where wild peas still grow. The earliest documented evidence of peas dates back to the Nile Delta area of Egypt. Originally, humans harvested pea pods for the dry seeds inside, and through regular cultivation, the yield of these pea plants improved.
In the Middle Ages, peas became a staple crop used to fight famine. The distinction between field peas and garden peas came after the 17th century. In Early Modern Europe, peas were eaten immaturely and considered a luxury snack after the French started eating sugar peas.
In the 19th century, another innovation for peas came about by introducing modern split peas. Farmers harvested the dried seeds of plants and removed the outer shell by hand or machine.
What is a Pea Plant?
Peas (P sativum) come from leguminous plants, and pea seeds are considered legumes. Peas are a cool-season crop; pea seeds are planted in early spring when the ground thaws and becomes workable.
Pea plants thrive in cool weather, don’t grow well in warmer climates, and reach maturity roughly 60 days after planting. Because they are legumes like beans, growing peas proves beneficial for garden soil as these plants fix nitrogen levels in the soil for other plants.
Varieties of pea plants and chickpeas are gown in vining and low-growing types. Vining plants have tendrils that spread out and grip nearby structures for support. Many gardeners add wooden stakes, tree branches, or tomato cages to support pea plants. This support allows gardeners to keep plants and vines from overlapping.
Garden peas, also known as English peas, are shelling peas that do not grow edible pods. These peas are among the fastest maturing peas that grow plump inside their pod before being shelled.
Note: Garden peas are sometimes called sweet peas, not to be confused with the Lathyrus odoratus plant seeds that produce inedible seeds.
Field peas are among the oldest domesticated crops currently grown for human consumption and feeding livestock. These peas sell as dried peas instead of the garden variety sold as canned peas.
Snow peas grow flat edible pods that we harvest before the seeds grow plump. These peas are popular in fried rice recipes or stir-fries. Although harvested prematurely, snow peas have the longest wait time to reach maturity. These peas do not freeze well because of the high water content and taste best fresh.
Where do peas come from? Some peas, like garden peas, were first cultivated by the English. The introduction of new cultivars included hybrids using garden peas. Sugar peas are one of those newly developed types of peas.
Sugar peas are a hybrid cross between English peas and snow peas. These seeds are allowed to plump before harvest, just like English peas; however, these peas grow edible pods.
Other types of peas include marrowfat peas which are green peas allowed to mature and dry in the field instead of harvested like garden peas. Pigeon peas are a popular pea variety in Asia and Latin America. Despite their name, black eyed peas are not closely related to pea plants and are closer to another type of legume, the bean.
To grow pea plants in your garden, start in spring once you can work the soil. The time to start sowing your pea seeds varies by the USDA Hardiness Zone, but it’s usually from January through March. For the best germination rate once the soil temperature is between 40 and 70°F, plant seeds.
As cool-season crops, peas handle light frosts at the beginning of their growing season. If you live in a warmer climate, rising temperatures in late spring may threaten your plant’s growth. To select a spot in the garden for your peas, choose a location with full sun. Avoid growing peas in the shade of taller plants for the best yield.
Plant seeds in well-draining soil that remains moist but doesn’t leave your plant’s roots sitting in water. Find the best companion plants for peas to increase the yield. To retain moisture in your soil and avoid weeds, add a layer of organic mulch around your pea plant.
As your peas grow, they’re likely to become the target for garden pests. Plastic row covers are easy to install over your plants to keep pests like moths away, and creating a homemade insecticide is an effective method for pest control in the garden.
Add dish soap with water in a spray bottle. Spray the leaves on your pea plant to kill pests and deter them from feeding on the foliage. Peas are ready to pick when the pods reach a healthy size and are a bright green color.
Note: While optional, adding a cooking or horticultural oil into your spray bottle improves the effectiveness of your spray.
What are Peas Used for?
Peas are incredibly healthy as they are low in calories but high in essential vitamins and minerals. Fresh peas contain high manganese levels and vitamin C and K. Fresh peas are usually boiled and seasoned for side dishes. Whole peas are easy to include in salads and casseroles, while we use split peas for split pea soup.
Shelled peas do well when frozen, and the nutrition value between fresh and frozen peas is similar. Home growers with a large yield of shelling peas can store them in the freezer and use them in various dishes without concern for losing the quality of their crop.
Fill a saucepan with water and let it come to a rolling boil before salting the water and adding peas. Boil for two minutes before removing from the heat. Rinse the peas with cold water and drain them dry. Mash the peas with feta cheese, cilantro, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread it on toasted bread and add additional seasoning if needed.
So, what are peas? Peas are delicious and nutritious pod fruits that anyone can enjoy. Their flavor is mild enough that you hardly notice them in soups and casseroles, but if you enjoy the taste of peas, try new recipes.
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