About Peas (Pisum sativum)
The term “pea” can refer to either the whole plant or just the fruit of an annual legume. The pod is, indeed, a fruit containing several seeds, but we typically count peas among the most familiar vegetables. Many other members of the family Fabaceae are also referred to as peas (black pea, sweet pea, yellow pea, etc…), but all garden peas are green.
Our modern garden peas were developed from the wild pea, which was cultivated as a pulse (dry seed) crop very early on around the Eastern Mediterranean region. Archaeological evidence suggests they were grown as food crops in Neolithic Turkey, Syria, and Jordan, and in the Nile valley in Egypt as early as 4500 BC. Dried peas remained an important foodstuff in Europe into the Middle Ages, but some time in the late 1600s eating green peas (as we do today) became a culinary fad in France and England.
In England, peas became an absolute staple, and plant breeders developed several genetic lines to bring out sweetness, or to enhance their other characteristics. Some cultivars were developed as shelling peas, which are removed from the pod prior to eating, and others were grown as snap peas, for pods that are eaten whole, with the immature peas still inside. The French term for snap peas is mange-touts, or “eat it all.” Eventually the popularity of peas spread to North America, where breeding continued. Thomas Jefferson grew as many as thirty different pea varieties on his estate at Monticello.
Peas also spread eastward, where they became an essential, particularly as split peas for use in dal. The peas are separated from the pod, dried, rolled to remove the outer skin, and then split in half along the natural fault on each seed created by the cotyledon — the structure that would have formed the first leaves had the seed sprouted.
In East Asia, the snow pea appears to have been in cultivation over a much longer period than snap and shelling peas were in the west. Along the Mekong river, snow peas may have been in cultivation for 12,000 years. Snow pea pods are eaten while they are still flat, before the seeds have developed, and these were introduced to North America via Chinese cuisine. They are stir-fried, or even served raw. Pea sprouts and pea tips (literally, the tips of the vine) are also popular in Chinese dishes, served hot, sweet, and crunchy. Pea sprouts are fast and easy, and can also be grown as micro-greens.
Peas, however they are eaten, are high in protein and dietary fibre, along with vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, and other minerals. As legumes, peas naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil (as beans do), which actually improves garden soil and earns them a worthwhile place in your annual crop rotation. Both large, trailing varieties and small, bush-forming types exist, which makes peas practical for most gardens. Plus they're among the easiest vegetables to freeze for long-term storage.
Mid-July sees the little town of Peasenhall in Suffolk, England celebrate the Pea Festival. Events include pea-throwing competition, pea football, cooking demonstrations, barbecue, live music, a parade, the world pea podding championship, and “massive bags of fresh peas for a fiver.”