Colorful and hardscrabble, the humble pink-eye purple hull pea has been elevated to a multicultural symbol of good luck and is even celebrated with its own Arkansas festival.
The peas have been cultivated for thousands of years and today are perhaps best known in the south for being served in Hoppin’ John, a traditional New Year’s Day dish, and at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for good luck. Each June, the pea is honored at the Purple Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson, Ark. This year’s festival runs from June 24 through June 25.
“Pink-eye purple hull peas are the survivor in the garden,” said Craig Andersen, horticulture extension specialist-vegetables with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. “They grow in poor, low-fertility soils, withstand heat and drought stress, and still produce a crop.”
Andersen said the “pink eye” part refers to where the seed attached to the pod, and the purple hull comes from a pigment called anthocyananin, the same chemical that puts the purple in pansies and the blush in the cheeks of apples.
“The truth is that the hull can be any color from a tan, to red or purple, and it does not determine the color of the peas,” he said, adding that the peas can be every color from white to black.
“We call them Southern peas and others may call them cowpeas, but the botanical group they belong to is the species ‘Vigna’,” Andersen said. “This includes everything from crowder peas, lady peas, and black-eyed peas to long bean, asparagus bean to red ripper beans.”
Peas have an advantage that helps them survive tough conditions.
“Because the genus has a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria Rhizobium that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere for the plants to use, Vigna needs little nitrogen fertilizer, and is one of the most important sources of vegetable protein for humans around the world,” he said. “We rarely inoculate the peas with the Rhizobium bacteria, because they have been grown in the South for so long that most soils already have a population of the bacteria.”
Black-eyed peas should be planted in a well-drained sandy loam soil. They do best if the soil pH is near 6.0 or above, with not much nitrogen fertilizer. Rhizobium bacteria in the soil will colonize the roots and provide nitrogen to the plant in exchange for carbohydrates from the plant.
It is a warm-season plant that does best when soil temperatures are above 62 degrees.
“We plant peas anytime from late spring to midsummer,” Andersen said. “Although peas are drought-tolerant, they do benefit from additional watering if needed at pod set, and pod filling. In about 48 to 55 days, you can start shelling peas.”
Young pods, where the peas have not filled out, can be used as “snaps” like green beans, or the peas can be left to fill out and shelled later. Leave the peas on the vine until the pods are dry and the seeds are dry, and you can store the peas throughout the winter. Soak them in water and rehydrate the peas when you are ready to use them. Many people prefer the taste of fresh peas, and will blanch and freeze them for later use.
“Peas have been passed down from one generation of gardeners to another. Save the seed from the best quality pods and allow them to dry with good air circulation. Shell them and store the peas in a glass jar in your freezer. This will help to preserve the viability of the seed and kill the larvae of any insects, such as weevils, that destroy stored seed.”
For addition information, refer to Extension’s home gardening series of publications, and get FSA6020 Southern Peas, or www.uaex.edu/Other_Areas/publications/PDF/FSA-6020.pdf . For more information on gardening, visit www.uaex.edu  or contact your county Extension office.