We’re taking a pounding from the ol’ learning curve. I’m not sure gardening/farming is a mostly-intuitive process. For us, it’s been a savage procession of lessons in just how disconnected from the real sources of our food supply Jack and I have been all these years.
Still, there is some headway. So far, this year’s attempt to plant some cowpeas and snap beans has met with a measure of success. I say that until tomorrow morning finds me, like this morning, surveying the small plot and muttering under my breath at the dug-up places in the garden. My carefully-watered soil seems to have become a nocturnal armadillo playground. But we still try to peacefully co-exist. Every night, they root around for fat, juicy subterranean treasures in our soil, and every morning I kick the mulch layer back into place and note the mounting cowpea casualties.
That said, there still seem to be plenty of survivors…so far. This morning, I thinned a few in the areas where we’d used a hand-sowing broadcast method of seeding. There were more clumps of unevenly-distributed plants in those sections, and they needed some breathing room.
There seems to be a healthy root system to these thinnings, and next time I’ll harvest the thinnings with scissors and leave the roots undisturbed. I’ll also plant my rows with greater care, since the ones that are doing best seem to be the ones I planted a seed at a time in double rows rather than by broadcasting over a larger area.
We planted pink-eye purple hull peas this year as our choice of cowpea, since that’s the variety I remember most from my childhood. We generically called them black-eyed peas, but after eating real black-eyed peas in my adulthood, I found they were two different things. But they, like many other varieties, both fall into the category of plant termed Cowpea.
Since we’re new to a lot of this, we were interested to find that cowpeas have a long history of use as animal fodder, and many times were used primarily for that, despite their usefulness as human food. I found some references that stated that cowpeas had a wide use by landowners on colonial U.S. farms as animal fodder, and that servants and slaves oftentimes utilized the peas and the greens as nourishing foods for themselves. A book on agriculture from about a hundred years ago stated that cow pea leaf fodder, when dried as a hay, is on par with the nutrition of alfalfa hay, which really surprised me. I’m not sure of any recent studies that confirm this, but it interests me since cowpeas grow really well in hot climates and can withstand drought quite well.
In fact, cowpeas’ climate adaptability to heat, humidity, and drought is known worldwide, and they are cultivated by many indigenous cultures. Further investigation showed that cowpeas and the plant leaves have been used throughout time, up to the present-day, on the African continent as a staple good in nutritious traditional foods. It seems that not only cowpeas, but other plant foods such as okra, tropical pumpkins, and sweet potatoes enjoyed related histories and adaptability in similar climate conditions, and were transported as valued food sources during population shifts, immigrations, diaspora, and slaveship crossings in times past.
The interesting similarity among some of these foods is that many of them have been viewed in general as subsistence foods rather than preferred ones. This is the case with maize/corn, which in some cultures is viewed as an animal feed rather than a human one, in contrast to other areas where it’s a staple around which most meals are built. Sweet potatoes and okra often have been viewed as a poor man’s food in the U.S., and this has been the case with the cowpea as well.
Had I found none of these things, I love me some purple hulls simply because of the taste. Part of my childhood was spent in Mississippi, and we ate from a garden where purple hull peas found their way to the dinnerplate regularly, accompanied with cornbread and sliced garden tomatoes.
What I did NOT know is that all the while, we could have been harvesting the leaves, too.
I LOVE finding plants with multiple uses! In only minutes on the internet, I found that the leaves of cowpea plants are highly nutritious, and are responsible for fending off malnutrition and starvation in areas of the world where mass production of grains or other large agriculture are not practical or need rotation or intercropping. Cowpeas can be grown in many cultures as a backyard garden plot, and the greens are actually more packed with nutrition than even the peas themselves. All the edible parts of the plants must be cooked first, for human consumption…they are not edible raw.
Harvesting the leaves can be done in stages. It seems the preferable leaves to pick are the small ones, and the growth tips, but later in the growth cycle the tougher, mature leaves can also be harvested and processed a bit differently. The young leaves are either sauteed or boiled, often used as an ingredient in traditional vegetable dishes, soups, and porridges. The older leaves are tougher, and are boiled then dehydrated by drying in the sun, then crumbled or powdered and stored as an ingredient to add protein to traditional dishes. This chart shows the high protein ranking of cowpea greens compared to other vegetarian foods.
Here is a picture of the trimmed leaves and tips of the cowpea greens I had thinned. I briefly sauteed them in a teaspoon of olive oil with a pinch of sea salt for my first trial taste-testing. I couldn’t find a lot of instructions on the correct way to cook the greens, but some accounts said they are cooked similarly to spinach. Since I sautee my spinach this way, I tried these greens in like manner.
Here they are sauteed. Tasting them proved them to be similar to spinach, but without a spinachy flavor. Their flavor was pleasant, with a slight bitterness that was not unpleasant. It was similar to the slight bitterness present in a mesclum lettuce mix, several flavors in combination. If these greens had not been tender, I would have fixed them as I would fix mature collard, kale, or turnips greens, by boiling them and them simmering them on low until tender.
My conclusion about the cooked leaves at this point is that I would definately eat these again. They are actually more pleasant eating than spinach, at least to my palate. I love spinach, but hate the oxalic acid’s effect afterwards. These had no after-effects and were as enjoyable to me as kale or chard, which I really like.
Cowpea greens are more than a novelty find…they are a viable answer to malnutrition and hunger in many parts of the world. I was pleased to find that so many groups are studying and promoting these as practical solutions, and I thought about the possibilities for our own small garden plot. These are a good crop to use in rotation with other crops because they make nitrogen available. They are good in humidity, heat and drought. They can be used as a cover crop or as green manure if incorporated back into the soil at the flowering stage.
The plants can be grown for their greens alone, and harvested in stages. Or they can be grown for their peas, which can be dried or cooked right off the vine, or even the immature pods cooked as you would snap beans. The pods of the purple hull peas can be boiled and made into a grape-type jelly, too!
In a climate where insects have gobbled down nearly every green I’ve managed to grow, these leaves may be one of our answers to how to include garden greens into our meals during the hottest months. And that’s really good news for us during these times. I love finding protein-rich nutritious foods that require little input or fuss…or expense.
We’ll keep experimenting with ways to use these leaves as greens at mealtime..we’ve just touched on the possibilities. I’m just really pleased with the outcome of this one, and this is leading us to look more and more into other plants with dual uses and edible leaves!