My earliest memory of peas is being six years old, and scattering all my dear Nana’s pea seeds across her vegetable garden. I was helping!
I had never seen her angry before, but once she calmed down and finished scolding me, she showed me how and where to correctly plant peas. Despite that slightly traumatic memory, I have been a gardener, and a lover of peas, ever since.
The Pea Story
Peas are among the oldest cultivated vegetables on Earth. They were important to prehistoric cultures and have been grown in Mediterranean regions since 7800 BC. Fresh shelled green peas did not catch on in Europe until the 1600s, but they were considered a huge guilty pleasure (kind of like Renaissance potato chips!), as evidenced by a letter written by Louis XIV’s wife Madame de Maintenon:
“The subject of Peas, continues to absorb all others; the anxiety to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the desire to eat them again, are the three great matters which have been discussed by our Princes for four days past. Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal table…, 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.”
Prior to this, peas were mostly starchy and dry, but with very high protein content and were dried and ground as flour for baking bread, or made into a kind of porridge.
By 1650 sweeter, more tender peas had been developed in England, but those were mostly eaten only by the upper classes, leaving the tough older peas to be consumed by the poor.
By the late 1800s English seedsmen were offering hundreds of pea varieties in their catalogues, generally more than any other type of vegetable seed. Many spent vast fortunes developing new varieties, or purchasing them from independent growers and labelling them as their own.
Peas were the favourite vegetable of the third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson. He held neighbourhood competitions each spring to see who could harvest the first pea.
If you have a burning need to know even more about pea history, check out this article from Britain’s The Gardens Trust for loads of fascinating details.
“All the essentials of life are a mere four: hot baths, cold champagne, old brandy and new peas”Winston Churchill
The State of Peas
An excellent and disturbing infographic researched and created by National Geographic’s John Tomanio shows that 408 varieties of peas were offered by commercial seed houses in 1903; in 1983 only 25 varieties remained. That’s right – you and I only have 25 varieties of pea seed to choose from (at least in 1983, it may be worse now). That loss of diversity is frightening. We don’t know what kind of disease resistance, flavour, or growing robustness has been lost to us with the absence of all these varieties.
How to Grow Peas
Peas prefer cool weather, so if you live in a region that gets hotter, drier summers like me, try growing snap peas – I’ve heard they do better in warm weather, and will be testing that in my garden this year.
Plant seed as early in the spring as the soil can be worked. You can plant again in July and August for a fall crop. If you have wet soil, don’t soak the seeds prior to planting. If planting after mid- to late April plant seeds 2” deep to take advantage of cooler soil. Most varieties will need a trellis or netting, or you can create one from brushy dry sticks as settlers did. Here are 25 ideas from Gardenoid.com for repurposing items to make a trellis.
Don’t wait until your pea pods get large and plump before you pick them. They’ll most likely be dry and woody. Experiment with picking them at different stages to get just the size and sweetness you like.
How to Enjoy Peas
I have never had the space to grow enough peas to harvest a large enough quantity for a meal, but no matter. I am happiest curled up at the foot of the pea vines, simply picking and eating them like candy, and I’m convinced they taste better that way.
In 1929 Clarence Birdseye came up with his commercial freezing procedure, and peas proved to be his greatest hit. Today 90% of the world’s peas are picked when immature and promptly frozen for sale in supermarkets. Consequently there are entire generations who have never tasted a fresh pea!
Heirloom Pea Varieties to Grow
Stratagem – Very rare. A delicious pea that was praised with typical Victorian hyperbole as “the finest pea in the world” when it was introduced to the U.S. in 1883. This variety is grown in the heritage gardens at the Historic Stewart Farm where I used to work. I found the seeds at a farm on nearby Bowen Island, where records show it was a popular variety in the area at the turn of the century. Sadly that source no longer seems to exist. It’s a good lesson in the importance of saving seed and having backup supplies in case you lose your crop one season.
Prairie Garden Seeds; The Lost Seed (Australia)
Tall Telephone (aka Alderman) – Preferred variety of pea growers since 1885, and still easy to find today. Well-flavoured, large pods, 6 foot tall vines. Named in honour of the invention of the telephone.
OSC Seeds; West Coast Seeds; McKenzie Seeds
Sugar Snap – A very old type of pea that was only recently rediscovered. Both the pod as well as the peas inside are eaten, and they’re very good raw, or lightly steamed or stir fried.
McKenzie Seeds; B.C. Eco Seed Co-op; OSC Seeds
Champion of England – Developed in England in 1846, this hard-to-find heirloom reaches heights of 10 feet, although some list it as only five feet tall which may be a newer strain. A very popular variety into the early 1900s.
Seed Savers Exchange; B.C. Eco Seed Co-op; Select Seeds
And I have to ask: do your homegrown peas ever make it to the kitchen? Or are you like me, preferring to plunk yourself at the foot of the pea patch and simply eat them raw like the best kind of candy? Let me know in the comments.