A crop for climate change: the humble cowpea!
The summer of 2012 was the single worst year for gardening that I have ever experienced. Here in south-central Indiana the temperature was above 90 degrees Fahrenheit for more than four weeks total, and was combined with a summer-long drought that killed mature trees and withered the crops in the fields before they could even grow.
Although my garden suffered, there was one crop that laughed at the heat and drought. Many people have never heard the term “cowpea”, but virtually everyone recognizes the humble black-eyed pea, which is the most famous cowpea. Cowpeas are simply a species of legume hailing from Africa. Commonly grown throughout the American South, they have long, vigorous vines with elongated, slender pods that are crammed with very small peas (thus their other common name, crowder peas).
I grew a variety from Burkina Faso called Haricot Rouge, which I obtained from Baker Seeds. This plant “took a licking and kept on ticking.” It grew sturdy vines covered with pods all summer long, notwithstanding local conditions, and flowered right up until frost. What’s more, because I was negligent in my post-season garden cleanup, and left the dead vines on the trellis all winter long, the seeds that fell out of the dried pods during the cold months actually overwintered and sprouted in the spring, thus saving me the trouble of replanting. Who would have thought that a tropical vine, accustomed to African weather, could overwinter in freezing, soggy, heavy clay soils and spring up again as soon as the weather had warmed sufficiently? My greenbeans and sugar-snap peas have never reseeded themselves like this.
Let me list the many virtues of the cowpea. It contains just under 25% protein and is rich in lysine and tryptophan, according to Purdue University’s outstanding horticultural information site (http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/ cowpea.html). The plant can be eaten four different ways: while the pods are immature, again while medium-mature, or, of course, after they have dried on the vine; and the young leaves can be gently cooked, like spinach. I experimented with pulling up some of the seedlings that had sprouted too far away from the trellis, and replanting them closer, and the disturbance didn’t bother them at all even though I was quite rough with some of them. This plant has an incredible will to live. It doesn’t even need to be watered, according to Purdue. Lastly, it’s “good for man and beast” and makes excellent livestock fodder.
Baker Seed carries many heirloom varieties of cowpea seed, most of them with wonderful names like Blue Goose, Monkey Tail and Turkey Craw. With the changing climatic conditions we’re all experiencing, a savvy gardener would do well to plant this heat-loving, drought-resistant nutritious legume.