Members of the Bean Family (Fabaceae), cowpeas belong to the Vigna unguiculata botanical group. Also known as southern peas, their seed type bestows even more monikers on this ancient food crop - crowder peas, black-eyed peas, and purple-eyed peas. Cultivated since Neolithic times, and distinctly different from common beans, cowpeas are easy to grow, providing delicious nutrition and culinary versatility for the home gardener.
Researched by NASA investigators in the 1990s as one of the crops to sustain long-term space exploration, every stage of the cowpea is edible. Their seeds are extremely high in protein and their leaves and immature pods, also very nutritious, are quite tasty and versatile.
Cowpeas are strongly tap-rooted, as opposed to the shallow lateral root systems of common beans. This means cowpeas are more tolerant of water stress and less than ideal soils. Interestingly, if irrigation is used, cowpeas tend to focus more on vegetative growth which results in delayed maturity.
Soils benefit from cowpea cultivation. Like most legumes, the roots of cowpeas become home to soil bacteria that transform atmospheric nitrogen into the usable forms of nitrogen required by plants. Cowpeas are known for relatively high rates of nitrogen-fixation, in a sense providing not only their own fertilizer but nutrition for neighboring plants.
The cultivation of cowpeas is comparable with the growing of common beans. Like beans, they can have a climbing, bush, or bush with runner growth habit. We sow cowpea seeds 1-1.5 inches (~2.5-4 cm) deep at an in-row spacing of 4-6 inches (~10-15 cm.) Because we grow multiple varieties of cowpeas per season, their plots are intermingled amongst our other crops. For bush varieties, we use a between-row spacing of 9 inches (~23 cm) to match our favorite cultivation tool, the Terrateck. Climbers are trellised.
Cowpea seeds germinate best when the soil temperature reaches a consistent 65°F / 18°C. Under cooler conditions, germination is very slow increasing the chance seeds rot before emergence. We use a simple probe meat thermometer to monitor soil temperature in the spring.
Cowpeas are a viable option for high-quality animal fodder.
Saving your cowpea seeds to create your own true-to-type seed stock is a straightforward process. Cowpea blossoms are highly self-pollinating. Simply allow pods to mature and dry on the vine and collect their seeds. However, Mother Nature has made cowpea blossoms appealing to insects, especially bees, which increases the chance of cross-pollination between varieties. To harvest seeds for your own seed stock, isolate your cowpea varieties by a distance of at least 10 ft (~3 m.) If you intend to share or sell your seeds, an increased distance of 20 ft (~6 m) is recommended. Try to harvest seeds from at least 25 individual plants, with the goal of from at least 50 to truly preserve a variety's genetics. (Thankfully cowpea do well closely spaced!)
Recipes coming soon...