Companion of Misery in Slave Ships

Though most of our common introduced plants reached the Americas by way of Europe, the cowpea (Vigna sinensis) was brought from Africa to Jamaica about 1675 by slave traders. They carried cowpeas as part of their ship stores for feeding their tragic cargoes. They also planted the seeds to grow food in Jamaica.

Because of the plant's adaptability to tropical conditions and the high food value of its seeds, its culture spread generally over the West Indies in the early 18th century. It is believed to have reached Florida from the West Indies about 1700. It was grown in 1714 in North Carolina and in 1775 in Virginia.

In 1775 in Florida edible varieties were apparently much the same as our commonest kinds today. Some had well-rounded white seeds with a black "eye" (present variety Black-Eye); others had seeds crowded so closely in the pod that the ends of the seeds were flattened (present varieties called "crowders," as Brown Crowder, Cream Crowder). These same kinds were described as common in the West Indies in 1756.

George Washington wrote in a letter in 1791 that "pease" (meaning cowpeas) were rarely grown in Virginia, but in 1797 he bought 40 bushels of seed for sowing on his plantation. Since the English pea is not suited to the hot weather of the South, the edible varieties of cowpeas became more popular there, and southerners became accustomed to applying the term "pea" to the cowpea instead of the English pea.

Most of our edible varieties appear to have come from Africa along with the slaves, while most of the "field" varieties (used for stock feed and soil improvement) have been much more recently imported from India and China.

Black-Eye Most Popular

The Black-Eye is by far the most important edible variety of cowpea grown in the United States, although the "crowders" (Purple Hull, Lady, and others) are listed by American seedsmen, especially in the South. The cowpea is much more popular as a vegetable in our South than elsewhere in this country.

As a garden vegetable, the pods are usually harvested when the seeds are about fully grown and the pods are beginning to fade in color, but before either the seeds or the pods begin to dry out. The "peas" are then shelled out of the pods and cooked with a piece of fat pork. They are of fine quality and highly nutritious, with a flavor and savor of their own.

The name "cowpea" is of American origin and was first used in print in 1798. When this crop was first grown in the United States, it was called "pease," "callicance," and later, "corn-field pease," because of the early custom of planting it between the rows of field corn. It has also been called "southern pea" and "southern field pea." These names distinguished the species from Pisum sativum, the English pea, or garden pea .

In India, the land of origin of the cowpea, it has at least 50 distinct common names. One Hindu name is chowlee, which sounds somewhat like cowpea but probably has no connection with our word. Another name in India is lubia. The numerous old names, including one in Sanskrit, indicate that the plant was in cultivation in prehistoric times.

In India two related plants are catjang (Vigna catjang), a bush type, and asparagus bean (Vigna sesquipedalis), a climbing type.

Peregrinations of a Pea

The cowpea was carried from India to Arabia and Asia Minor, thence down into Africa in prehistoric times. A prehistoric form that was introduced into Africa ages ago persists there like a truly wild plant. Despite the finding of a wild form only in Africa, other evidence points strongly to the Indian center as the origin. The cowpea is grown to some extent in all parts of Africa where crops can be grown. It reached China before the days of recorded history.

The early Greeks and Romans either were unfamiliar with this plant or they failed to distinguish it among the various "peas" and "beans" about which they wrote. A Greek medical man of the first century of our era roughly described a plant that may have been the cowpea.

Italians of the 14th century knew the plant, which could have reached them by way of Asia Minor or through Africa. Later its culture became common in the Mediterranean area, but not in northern Europe because the climate there is too cool for it.

Is the cowpea a pea or is it a bean? It is distinctly different from both English, or garden, peas and garden beans. Botanically, it appears more closely related to the plants we usually call beans than to those we call peas.

In the South cowpeas are called simply "peas"; but the dry seeds of the Black-Eye variety, as grown for food, are marketed as "beans"! The terms "pea" and "bean" are far from exact; they are applied loosely, in accordance with custom, rather than for any technical reason.