Heirloom Groundnut Varieties
A goober pea is also known as a groundnut. See how this heirloom vegetable originated and how to grow it.
August 8, 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 groundnuts was taken from chapter 18, “Goober Peas.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom groundnut 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 Groundnuts (Goober Peas)
This long forgotten African-American legume closely related to the fava bean was once an important garden crop among blacks in the South. An annual originating from West Africa but now distributed over most of that continent, Voandzeia subterranea is known by a wide variety of names, including Congo goober, groundnut, and bambara. Because it produces a female flower head (called a “peg”) that bends down after pollination to touch the ground and thus forms a seed pod beneath the surface of the soil, it is often confused with the peanut (Arachis hypogaea). The confusion is further strengthened by the fact that the goober pea can be pounded to a paste resembling peanut butter. The seeds can be eaten green like shelly beans or soaked overnight and prepared in the same manner as dry peas. The pods can be cooked like snap beans, and the leaves are edible as well, usually cooked as a green. The dry bean is also ground for flour, and the seed paste yields an oil widely used as a cooking oil in Africa. It is probably one of the most all-purpose vegetables in the garden.
In her article “Groundnut Stew from Sierra Leone,” which appeared in the Anthropologists’ Cookbook (1977, 91–92), Gay Cohen noted that a visitor to that region of Africa in the 1840s observed that stewed groundnuts and guinea fowl were considered a national dish. Unfortunately, in most of the African cookbooks written for non-African audiences, peanuts are generally substituted for groundnuts in whatever form the recipe may require. The two are not the same.
A discussion of the groundnut and its use in this country unfolded in the Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist (1885, 281–82) in response to questions about the origin of the southern terms goober and pindar, both of which are African. Pindar, a word for the peanut, appears to come from mpinda, while goober stems from guba or ginguba (when it is stewed). H. W. Ravenel of Aiken, South Carolina, clarified some of the early history of the goober pea, noting that these old terms were once used exclusively by blacks and that “50 to 60 years ago” (1820–1830) the pea had been extensively cultivated by slaves along the South Carolina coast. There, as in Africa, it was cooked with rice as a dish for special occasions.
The goober pea requires a growing season of about 120 frost-free days, thus it can be cultivated anywhere that peanuts can be grown. In Pennsylvania I start the plants in my greenhouse to give them plenty of time to develop before planting in the ground. This is normally done in large pots so that the peas are large and branching when they are set out, at the same time as tomatoes. Since the peas are tender and will not thrive in cool spring weather, there is no reason to plant as soon as the threat of frost has passed.
Individual plants should be spaced no less than 3 feet apart to allow for spreading. The male flowers, generally yellow on most varieties, pollinate rather nondescript female flowers on the same plant. Since the pegs form underground, normally with one seed to a pod, it is advisable to work the soil deeply with sand before planting. The addition of calcium helps promote pod development. High summer temperatures, even drought conditions, do not bother the peas as much as long periods of rainy weather, so the ground where they are cultivated must be well drained at all times.
The most common variety is the white-seeded (it has no particular name in this country), which is also the color mentioned in historical sources. It is available from Deep Diversity as well as through Seed Savers Exchange. I also cultivate a red-seeded variety from Botswana. The two will cross and therefore must be grown at least half a mile apart, or during alternate years. Seed viability appears to be the same as for Spanish peanuts, about four years. This is based on personal observation, since viability data does not seem to be readily available.
To save seeds and harvest the crop, allow the plants to turn yellow at the end of the season — or better, let them be nipped by frost. Pull up the bushes whole to cure in a dry, frost-free place out of direct sun for 2 to 3 weeks. Once the pegs are cured and thoroughly dry, the seeds can be removed and stored in airtight jars. The seeds are round and smooth, roughly the size of a chickpea, about 1/2 inch in diameter.
Crops that are to be used only for consumption can be dried in the open in direct sun in the same manner as peanuts. Sunlight, however, destroys germination rates, so these peas cannot be saved for seed. Seed for flour or for paste like peanut butter is normally dry-roasted before it is ground. The fresh flour and paste should be refrigerated, otherwise they will turn rancid.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Illustration Courtesy William Woys Weaver. Photo By Fotolia/thornchai.