Heirloom Asparagus Pea Varieties

Asparagus pea is considered to some to be esoteric. Find out just how easy it is to grow and prepare this heirloom vegetable.

July 15, 2013

By William Woys Weaver

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom asparagus pea varieties was taken from chapter 6, “Asparagus Pea.”

To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom asparagus pea varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.

A Brief History of Heirloom Asparagus Pea Varieties

Asparagus Pea

Above: Asparagus pea will tolerate the same sort of arid, worn-out ground preferred by nasturtiums.

Psophocarpus tetragonolobus/Tetragonolobus purpureus

A legume that is neither asparagus-like nor a pea, this cheerful garden vegetable may be considered esoteric by some but is an epicurean treat to the initiated. It is so easy to grow that I wonder I do not see it in more gardens, for it will tolerate the same sort of arid, worn-out ground preferred by nasturtiums. As far as I am concerned, there is always a spot for it in my garden, if for no other reason than its profusion of bright red flowers, which the Victorians found quite pleasing. James Vick of Rochester promoted it in his seed catalog (1872, 62) as an ornamental mixed with sweet peas.

The origin of this plant, also known as the winged lotus (it is not a lotus either!), appears to be northwest Africa, but during classical antiquity it was dispersed throughout the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the archaeological record has not yielded much on the early history of the plant or its uses, but it is mentioned in many Renaissance herbals. Philip Miller, in 1734, was one of the first garden writers to mention that the pods were edible. Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia sold seed in the early 1800s under the name Winged Pea, the name by which it was known in colonial America. The old Philadelphia gentry used to serve it as a garnish on fricasseed frog’s legs.

The flavor of the cooked pods is highly aromatic and not akin to asparagus as its name would imply, but the pods must be harvested very young, perhaps no more than three-quarters of an inch long, otherwise they become tough and stringy. The pods retain their color when cooked and are best blanched or steamed for about 15 minutes, then added to other dishes for visual interest and texture. They can be mixed with peas, added to stir-fries, or combined with rice and whole-grain dishes.

Asparagus pea seeds can be started indoors in April and the seedlings thinned to small pots. They may be transplanted to the garden in May or after all threat of frost has passed. The plant is annual and comes to crop very quickly in the course of two-and-a-half months. Thus if planted in mid-May, it will begin blooming in June and peak by July 4. Three successive plantings one month apart will ensure a crop all summer.

Asparagus Pea, Edible Flowers and Ripe Pods

The plants spread laterally and close to the ground. They should be planted about 1 foot apart. Since they are low and spreading, they can be planted in front of taller vegetables or even along the top of a wall so that they drape over it. The flowers are self-pollinating and will not cross with any of the other vegetables in this book. To gather seed, let the plants produce pods and die. Gather the dry pods and take out the seed. Store in airtight containers away from direct light. Seed will remain viable for at least three years.

Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.

Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.

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