Plant 194

Pisum sativum L. (Fabaceae)


Garden pea

The pea is an annual climber with pink, purple or white flowers that are followed by pods containing multiple seeds. Peas, like many members of the family Fabaceae, fix atmospheric nitrogen in root nodules through symbiotic relationships with Rhizobium bacteria. There are two recognised subspecies of pea and many named varieties. Native to the Mediterranean, peas have long been cultivated as an edible crop; evidence from an archaeological site in Israel suggests that peas were in cultivation 10,000 years ago. Peas require reasonably cool conditions to grow well but are widely cultivated across the temperate northern hemisphere.

The most widespread way peas are used is a seeds that have been grown to maturity, dried and split. This allows them to be stored for long periods. In the modern era peas are often harvested at an immature stage, and the seeds eaten lightly cooked or they are frozen for later use. Many varieties have edible pods when gathered at an immature stage and the tender shoots of pea plants are becoming a popular food. Peas are very rich in protein, and high in fibre and minerals such as iron. Peas are also grown as a feed crop for livestock and as a 'green manure' crop to improve soil fertility due to their high nitrogen content.

'Perched or burstled peasen which are called in Northumbria Carlines' are mentioned in William Turner's Herbal of 1562. They are a variety of pea which was traditionally cooked on the fifth Sunday of Lent in northern England. The peas were soaked, boiled, fried in butter and mixed with a small glass of rum.

Friar Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) famously established the rules of heredity through a series of experiments by crossing peas and meticulously observing how traits such as height, seed colour, flower colour and seed shape were passed from one generation to the next. These experiments are credited with founding the science of genetics and thus contributing to the modern understanding of evolution, although their significance was not realised by the scientific community until several decades after Mendel's death.

In 1838 an ancient Egyptian funerary vase was accidentally broken open at the British Museum revealing wheat and peas which had been sealed inside. Despite the failure of initial attempts to germinate them, herbalist William Grimstone claimed success and marketed these 'mummy' peas as 'Grimstone's Egyptian Peas' before declaring bankruptcy and being sent to a debtor's prison.

Further reading

Davidson, A 1999. Penguin companion to food. Penguin.

Henig ,RM 2000. A monk and two peas: the story of Gregor Mendel and the discovery of genetics. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

van Wyk, B 2005. Food plants of the world. Timber Press.

James Penny