Sunday, December 20, 2015

Plant Story--Peas, Pisum sativum


The three faces of peas--fresh peas, dried peas, and edible-pod peas--are different enough that it is hard remembering they are all the same thing, peas, Pisum sativum (pea family, Fabaceae).

Mostly, when we say "peas" today, we are thinking of shelling peas (garden peas, English peas) especially ones that have been frozen, since peas freeze really well and season for fresh peas is short.

fresh peas
Fresh shelled peas
But it was because they could be dried and stored that peas were one of the very first plants domesticated in the Middle East.

dried peas
Dried peas
Archaeologists found peas in Neolithic Near Eastern and European sites, 8,000 to 9,500 years ago. By 7,600 years ago, the peas found in settlements were domesticated peas--grown rather than gathered. Domesticated peas have smooth seeds,unlike their wild relatives, and so can be recognized at an archaeological site. By the Bronze Age (5,000 years ago) peas were being grown in Switzerland, They were widely cultivated in classical Greece and across the Roman Empire. Looking eastward, peas were grown as a vegetable in China from at least 700 AD.

Peas dry relatively easily, store well and are high in protein and vitamins B and C. In addition they contain no toxins and don't cause allergies. They are also bigger than most other seeds available in ancient Eurasia. With all that going for them, it is no surprise they became a staple food.

pea plant
pea plant
The wild pea is an annual vine, climbing with tendrils. During domestication bush forms were produced.

The seeds can be green, brown, white, yellow or blue when dry.  Dried peas can be ground into powder to make a flour.

As a common food plant, peas accumulated specific terms and folklore. Pea was only one of the English names given the plant in the 16th century. Thomas Hill in The Gardeners Labyrinth, the first English-language gardening book, mainly called them peason, sometimes pease or peas. (Hill's book is wonderful for its unstandardized spelling. Hill spells the same word differently on the same page.)  The word "pea" is a late addition to English. Apparently people were bothered by a singular that sounded plural: "You dropped a pease" and created a new singular "pea".

Other old terms used with peas include cosh, pescod and squash. You cosh peas to shell them which takes the peas out of the cosh.  Shakespeare refers to a pea pod as pescod and an unripe pea pod as a squash. Both psecod and squash were insults if applied to a person.

Norse mythology described peas as having been a gift of the god Thor that should only be eaten on  his name-day (Thursday).

A European folk remedy used peas to be rid of warts. For each wart, you wrapped a pea in paper and buried it, saying "As this pea shall rot away, so my warts shall soon decay."

Surely every school child learned, as I did:
Pease porridge hot;
Pease porridge cold;
Pease porridge in the pot,
Nine days old."

The rhyme goes back to the Middle Ages, and refers to what we would today call pea soup. I remember being puzzled by it, not knowing the word porridge or why it would be nine days old. Another virtue of peas is that a pot of old porridge would still be nutritious and reasonably tasty.

shelling peas
shelling peas
Shelling peas is a common task for anyone who grows peas. Folklore had it that it was good luck to find 9 peas in the first pod shelled. Even later in the day, 9 peas in a pod were lucky. If you put the 9-pea pod over your door, the first person to walk in under it will have the same name (or initial in some versions of the story) as your future spouse.
Almost lucky peas  
Peas were not eaten fresh until the 17th century according to crop historians. I presume that means "were not grown as a crop intended to be eaten fresh" because anyone who has grown peas has grabbed a few off the vine to eat then and there.

peas in pod

Canning (from the early 1800s) and freezing (from the 1920s and 1930s) greatly increased consumption of peas, especially fresh (as opposed to dried) peas, since before that, fresh peas were only available very briefly in the late spring.

Edible-pod peas, called snow peas or sugar snap peas, are even more recent. Some were grown in the early 17th century but only since 1979 were modern varieties were developed and promoted.

Production of peas is the fifth largest of the world's legumes, behind soybeans, common beans, peanuts and chickpeas. In addition to their uses as food, peas are often incorporated in animal fodder.

young pea plant
young pea plant

And of course, peas are availabe for diverse puns.

Let me wish you:

Peas on Earth
Peas on Earth

This pun and holiday wish is in remembrance of Tim Myers, who taught it to me, and shared it with someone new every Christmas season.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Mabey, R. 1987. The Gardener's Labyrinth by Thomas Hill. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
National Geographic.2008. Edible. An illustrated Guide to the World's Food Plants. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
"Pea, n" Oxford English Dictionary online. accessed 11/23/15.
Simpson, B.B. and M. C. Orgazaly. 2014. Economic Botany. 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York.
van Wyk, B-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World. Timber Press, Portland. OR.
Vaughan, J. G. and C. Geissler. 1997. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Vickery, R. 1997. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-LoreOxford University Press, Oxford.

Kathy Keeler
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