Long a staple of Southern cuisine, Southern peas grow somewhat like ordinary green peas (garden or English peas), but their pods look more like lumpy string beans. Unlike green peas, Southern peas thrive in the long, hot summers of the South, where they are ready for harvest about 65 days after sowing.
Southern pea is a collective term; there are many different types. Field peas (also called cowpeas) are planted primarily for animal feed and for loosening and improving the soil. Some, however, do make good table peas. For example, 'Red Ripper' is very popular in Texas because it tolerates very hot, dry summers and bears as many as 18 tasty peas per pod. Drought-tolerant 'Whippoorwill' will grow in almost any soil.
The best-known Southern pea is the black-eyed pea, named for the dark spot on the notch of its tan or white seeds. Ironically, it grows better in the West than in the Southbut if you want to try it, plant the selections 'Queen Anne' or 'California Blackeye #5'.
By far the largest group is crowder peas, named for the blocky, square-edged seeds that crowd into the pod. Crowders do a great job of fixing atmo- spheric nitrogen, thereby enriching the soil, and they are very productive. Recommended selections include 'Calico', 'Colossus', 'Mississippi Silver', and 'Peking Black'.
Two other types of Southern peas, purple hulls and cream peas, are quite popular. The pods of purple hulls turn purple at maturity. Folks like them because they're highly productive and make a dark, flavorful pot liquor (the liquid left in the cooking pot). Favorite selections include 'Mississippi Pinkeye', and 'Pinkeye Purple Hull'. Cream peas are named for their white or cream-colored seeds. Try 'Zipper Cream' (its pods have a zipper for easy shelling), 'Lady Cream', 'Mississippi Cream', 'Texas Cream 40', and 'White Acre'.
All Southern peas tolerate drought and poor soil, need little fertilizer, and fend off pests. If nematodes plague your soil, plant resistant selections such as 'Mississippi Cream' and 'Mississippi Pinkeye'. All types need warm soil to germinate. Sow seeds for summer crops about 2 weeks after your last spring frost. For fall crops, sow in early July. To speed germination, soak seeds overnight before planting.
Sow in rows 2 ft. apart, planting seeds 1 in. deep in clay soils and 2 in. deep in sandy soils. When seedlings have reached 3 in. tall, thin them to 612 in. apart. Don't feed with nitrogen fertilizer or you'll get all leaves and no peas. Peas are almost ready for picking when the green pods start to change color; purple hulls turn purple, other types turn tan or yellow. Pick when they're halfway turned. Shell and cook the peas right away or freeze them for later. Frozen fresh peas keep up to a year. Or let the peas dry in the pod until they rattle, then shell and store them in a bag or jar.