Heirloom Pea Varieties
Learn about growing heirloom pea varieties — one of the oldest garden vegetables.
September 10, 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 pea varieties was taken from chapter 27, “Peas.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom 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 Pea Varieties
Peas are among the oldest of our garden vegetables. They have been under cultivation in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean since 7800 B.C. and over the centuries have evolved into many distinct varieties. In botanical terms, there are three major types: Pisum sativum var. sativum, the common garden pea; Pisum sativum var. medullare, the so-called “marrowfat” pea; and Pisum sativum var. saccharatum or axiphium, the sugar pea. There is also a subspecies called Pisum sativum var. arvense, which are smooth-seeded peas raised primarily as field crops, such as the Golderbse. All of these peas will cross with one another, so there are hundreds of varieties that fall between these larger divisions and sorting them out is no easy matter.
The English have raised the cultivation of the pea to an elaborate level of sophistication, and many of the old varieties found in early American kitchen gardens can be traced to English sources. The cool climate of England is conducive to pea culture, but unfortunately spring is short in most parts of the United States, so we do not have the luxury of a long, mild growing season. Many of the varieties that do well in England or on the Continent burn up at the onset of our hot summer weather, so our choices are often limited to new heat-tolerant varieties like the Italian bush pea pisello nano sole di Sicilia — a very fine pea, incidentally. On the positive side, sugar peas are also tolerant of hot weather, and we have recently discovered how well they fit into a lighter style of cooking. In fact, peas are an important source of vitamin E and therefore should not be omitted from a properly balanced diet.
Amelia Simmons, in her American Cookery (1796, 15), mentioned a number of peas for which there is considerable historical literature but which are seldom seen today, even among seed savers. These include the Crown Imperial, considered one of the best for our climate in the colonial period; the Crown pea; the Rouncival, also called Egg Pea or Dutch Admiral; and the Spanish Marotta. George Lindley commented in his A Guide to Orchard and Kitchen Garden (1831:567) that the Egg Pea and Spanish Marotta were considered poor man’s peas. This was a comment on his sniffish social attitudes as well as revealing volumes about Amelia Simmons’s working-class background. Most of these old varieties were known from the late 1600s or early 1700s and were grown well into the middle half of the nineteenth century. They were gradually replaced by newer varieties developed in England, Holland, and Germany, but dates of introduction are difficult to determine prior to the appearance of nineteenth-century garden publications that reported on new varieties on a yearly basis.
Americans also began developing their own pea varieties in the nineteenth century. David Landreth of Philadelphia introduced Landreth’s Early Bush Pea in 1823, one of the earliest datable American varieties. But there was also a marrow pea called Tall Carolina — an ancestor of Tall Telephone — and a more dwarf small-podded shelling pea called Eastern Shore. Seed savers it this country have tended to preserve the small garden varieties over the tall ones; thus there are quite a few important varieties missing from seed archives.
Extremely useful to the garden historian is an article in the Gardener’s Magazine for August 1836, which outlines a large field test of peas conducted by George Gordon, a gardener for the Horticultural Society of London. Gordon not only described the many varieties of peas then being grown but also provided synonyms, the various aliases by which the peas were known. In addition, he explained how seedsmen classified peas on a commercial basis by dividing them into nine groups based on the type of dry seed or vine. These were divisions based not on taxonomy but on artificial similarities. However, they provided a basis for many of the names of common heirloom peas still grown today, and therefore they are useful to keep in mind.
Peas can be planted early in the spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. They can be planted the same time as onions and potatoes, which for me is usually the end of March. Although it is more work, I prefer to force the peas in flats in my greenhouse and transplant them when the weather is a little warmer. The benefits are threefold: I know exactly which seeds have germinated and which have not, I can rogue out weak vines and plant more seed if necessary, and I avoid the loss of seedlings to cutworms, rabbits, and birds. Peas are extremely vulnerable when they first break through the ground because the new growth tastes good to a wide array of creatures. Once the plants are 4 to 5 inches tall, they are less vulnerable, and if they are planted beside netting, birds tend to leave them alone.
Historically, the taller sorts of peas were grown on devices called “pea sticks.” The illustration from the Gardener’s Magazine for June 1828 shows what they looked like. The stake shown is 6 feet tall and measures 3 by 1 1/2 inches thick. Holes have been drilled through the stake at even intervals, and these have been stuck with elm or hazel limbs — these two types of trees produce small limbs that are ideal for this application. For taller sorts of peas, like the Carling, the stakes would be twice as tall. I like this old method of growing peas because it is environmentally friendly in that it uses no plastics or artificial materials and puts to use small branches that might otherwise end up in the township dump. The branches and dead pea vines can always be chipped for mulch at the end of the season, and the stakes themselves can be reused for several years.
No matter what pea I plant in the garden, this late nineteenth-century variety is consistently the first pea to flower and usually the first to produce peas. Thus, it is well deserving of its name. The pea is a fixed hybrid of Champion of England and McLean’s Little Gem, and also goes by the name Early Dwarf. It was given considerable attention by Vilmorin (1885:422) as well as many other popular writers on kitchen gardens.
American Wonder has white flowers on 10-inch, bushlike vines; anything taller than this is not American Wonder. The 2-to-2 1/2-inch pods yield 3 to 5 shelling peas, but there are not many pods on each plant, so it is necessary to put in at least 100 vines for a worthwhile crop. I have planted forced vines from my greenhouse on April 21, only to have them in full bloom a week later, which is impressive by any stretch of the imagination. But while American Wonder may produce early, it also finishes early, so it should be planted as a first crop in conjunction with later varieties.
Peter Henderson (1904, 261) considered American Wonder one of the finest peas for kitchen gardens, and the woodcut below is reproduced from his book. It is an honest representation of the pea when the pods are ready for harvest, but there are quite a few little vines crammed together — perhaps 10 — to create the effect. A similar pea, but 2 inches taller, is the old gloire de Quimper (SSE PEA 220), a variety developed out of the très-nain de Bretagne of the 1830s. It sometimes pulls ahead of American Wonder when planted at the same time and, as far as I am concerned, produces one of the finest petit pois of any dwarf variety.
Seed savers should note that the dry pea of American Wonder is round, smooth, and marbled with two tones of green, although some seeds also have small dimples. Do not grow it near varieties with similar seed and pod type, for there will be no way of knowing if a cross has occurred. Also, always be on the lookout for unusual peas with off colors or textures. These may be sports or crosses that could very well produce a new and distinctive variety.
This pea was recommended to me by a member of Seed Savers Exchange who was interested in a possible connection with the Pennsylvania Dutch Arbogast family. That genealogical footnote has not yet crystallized, but there is good reason to believe that this excellent sugar pea is none other than David Landreth & Sons’ once popular Tall Sugar Pea by another name. What is certain is that this pea is an old type of gray sugar pea and is therefore more closely related to the Blue Pod Capucijner and a red pea from Brazil called ervilha torta flor roxa than to the common sugar peas of today. Indeed, the Arbogast pea is special in many respects, for it does not fit any of the common gray varieties known before 1850 other than the purple flowering variety sold by Landreth.
The seed is wrinkled red-brown with dark brown speckles. The seed germinates better if soaked overnight in lukewarm water the day before planting. The vines attain a height of 7 to 8 feet and require trellising or some other very sturdy support. The pods measure 3 1/2 to 3 3/4 inches in length and, when fully mature, contain 7 seeds. When planted in mid-April, the vines begin producing toward the end of May, peaking during the first half of June. Cropping can be extended by continuous harvesting, especially if the vines are kept well watered. The young pods are large, flat, and crispy. They are delicious raw.
The Capucijners are a Dutch category of pea equivalent to the English grays. Because they are hardy, many of the early Capucijner-type peas were sent to the Pennsylvania Dutch by Mennonites in Holland, probably as early as 1683. Folklore has assigned the development of the Capucijner pea to Capucan monks in Holland. While it may be true that a certain old type of pea now known as gray or capucan evolved in the cloister gardens of these monks during the late Middle Ages, most of the named varieties that belong to this group were created or perfected much later by Dutch seedsmen. The names have served for a long time as convenient tags for a type of pea, not necessarily denoting their origin. The Blue Pod Capucijner is a case in point, for in France it was known as pois à crosse violette, nothing in the name to do with monks.
Indeed, it is simply called pisum magnum peregrinum in the Hortus Eystettensis (Barker 1994), where it is depicted with two flowers fading to blue. This reference would date the pea to at least the 1580s. Furthermore, it may be equated with the old purple-podded gray pea of England, a gray sugar pea of robust growth reaching 6 to 7 feet tall, thus requiring substantial support. The 2 1/2-inch pods contain 5 to 7 seeds, but it was not when the pods were full of seeds that the pea was harvested for cookery. Rather, it was when the pods were very young and underdeveloped like young scarlet runner beans. At that stage of ripeness, they were boiled or steamed until tender and eaten like string beans. The texture of the miniature pea pod is similar to that of a runner bean, slightly crinkled on the surface like the creases in leather. Dare I mention that the mature pods of the Blue Pod Capucijner are exactly like leather? If the peas have matured that far, let them run to dry peas. They make excellent porridge in that state. But this pea has other assets worth mentioning.
It is spectacular. The flowers are bicolored, rose pink and wine red fading to bright blue as they wilt. They are followed immediately by tiny deep maroon pods that change to inky blue as they mature. This is one of the most decorative peas I have ever raised and is always a conversation piece for visitors.
There is another Capucijner worth mentioning, the Raisin Capucijner (SSE PEA 10), a dwarf or bush type with 3-foot vines. The plants ramble over one another and produce an abundance of peas in about 60 days. The very young pods can be cooked like snow peas, but it is the dry pea that was used in historical cookery, especially in peas porridge. This is a perfect crop for restoring the soil where potatoes have been grown. After harvesting the seed, I turn under the vines as a green manure. Incidentally, the dry peas do indeed resemble raisins.
The Carling Pea (SSE PEA 163) is a tall gray pea growing on 8-to-9-foot vines and harvested strictly as a dry pea. The seeds are small and brown in 3-inch pods, somewhat resembling a horse bean. The flower is pale pink with deep rose veins. The entire plant has the appearance of great antiquity, and well it should, for this is considered one of the oldest surviving strains of peas in England, dating perhaps from the Elizabethan period. As such, it may represent a pea similar to those brought to America by English settlers in the early 1600s. The name, however, is fascinating because it alludes to an English custom of great antiquity.
The pea takes its name from Carlin or Carling Sunday, a medieval feast day still observed in northeastern England. According to John Brand in his Observations on Popular Antiquities (1900, 57–61), the name derives from Old English Care or Carle Sunday — in German, Charsontag — the second Sunday before Easter. On this day a dole was given to the poor in the form of peas, a custom recorded in England as early as the twelfth century. The observance generally centered on March 12, which on the Celtic calendar was an important station in the lunar week. The original pagan significance of the day has been lost under layers of Christian observance, but it survives in the popular practice of serving refried peas free of charge at ale houses, or to guests at home with ham.
The general practice was to boil the peas about 20 minutes until soft, then drain and fry them in butter or lard until crisp (about 2 to 3 minutes). They were then served with salt and pepper or with sugar and vinegar as a bountiful snack, giving rise to the old English saying “Carling Sunday, farting Monday.”
The vines require extensive trellising unless grown in the medieval manner, allowed to ramble over dead underbrush brought into the garden. The Carling pea ripens the same time as another heirloom field pea called Colderbse, a strain of a rare old pea called the Danzig Pea by Fearing Burr (1865, 519–20). The rampant vines of Colderbse and Carling peas can be shredded and used as a green manure. The old practice was to set fire to the dead vines on August I, the Celtic feast of Lughnasa, thus burning up the brambles as well as providing the ground with potash and an end-of-harvest purification.
The original name of this pea was Fairbeard’s Champion of England, introduced in England by William Fairbeard in 1843. It began as a mutation or sport of Knight’s Dwarf White Marrow Pea and quickly became one of the most widely grown peas in England and the United States. Since Knight’s Dwarf White Marrow Pea was also known as Glory of England, it is not difficult to see how Fairbeard arrived at a name for his pea. Glory of England was known in the United States as the Wabash pea.
The vines of Champion of England are 5 to 6 feet tall (more generally 5), with branches beginning at about 18 inches from the ground. The plant produces 3-inch pods at each lateral joint, thus distributing peas over the plant — a good feature for avoiding top-heavy vines. The pods contain 6 or 7 peas, which become shriveled and pale olive green when ripe. This white-flowering variety is considered a late pea because it will withstand some of the hot weather we get in this country toward the middle of June. Peter Henderson (1904, 263) recommended it as “the best of all the late varieties.”
I plant the pea in early April and have peas by the middle of May. Harvesting the dry seed is thus finished by the middle of July, and space in the garden is freed for other crops. I should point out that the Champion of England pea in circulation among seed savers is only 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall, which does not conform to the old descriptions. In all other respects, however, it appears to share similar features.
The pea that has been preserved under this name (SSE PEA 185) is not the original English Dutch gray of the past. That pea, also known as Gray Rouncival, produced 8-foot vines and broad, stumpy pods that were somewhat flat. The brown seed was flecked with yellow, had a black eye, and was considered only fit for field culture. The heirloom that is now being cultivated as Dutch gray is indeed an old gray pea as defined by Gordon, but of a dwarf type, for its vines are no taller than 36 inches, many shorter than that. The olive-tan seed is almost identical to the Arbogast sugar pea, but larger, both varieties thus resembling a medieval horse bean. The flower is yellow-ocher tinged with rose in the throat and would make a striking cut flower if it were a sweet pea.
The period of cropping is very short. If I plant these peas toward the end of April, blossoming is completely finished by early June. Harvest of the dry peas follows 2 to 3 weeks later, depending on the weather. Therefore the space can be reused for a second planting of beans or cucumbers, or such hot-weather greens as Celtuce or Tetragonia. This pea is an excellent yielder, with 4 to 5 peas in each 3-inch pod. The dry pea may be cooked like a dry bean or ground for pea flour. Pea flour makes an excellent flat bread.
This is my idea of the perfect late-season pea. An English pea developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century, it is an excellent companion pea to Tall Telephone because it begins to crop almost on cue as Tall Telephone stops. Planted on the first of April, the pea does not begin to blossom until the middle of June — there is no hurrying it. And like Tall Telephone, it requires substantial trellising for support, since the peas form mostly at the top of the vines.
The vines measure about 9 to 10 feet in length, producing 3 1/2-inch pods with about 6 plump peas per pod. This is a shelling pea not to be overlooked, as the peas are sweet and delicious to eat even when they are raw. The pods themselves are round and hang down straight. While they are not good eating, they can be boiled with leeks and bay leaves to create an intensely flavorful vegetable stock.
The marrowfats are generally treated as late or main-crop varieties since they peak toward the end of June or even July, depending on how late they are planted — later in regions with cool summers. The most esteemed of the English marrow peas were the varieties developed by Thomas Andrew Knight of Downton Castle, Herefordshire. His Knight’s Gigantic or Tall Marrow Pea, introduced around 1827, remained popular for many years and was used by subsequent breeders to create a wide range of improved marrow pea varieties. New Englander Thomas Fessenden (1839, 149–50) approved heartily of Knight’s peas for New England gardens.
The nineteenth-century American standard for the marrow pea was the large white marrowfat of English origin, a heavy cropper with 5-foot vines bearing long round pods, with 6 or 7 large peas in each. It was cultivated for summer crops and much favored as a soup or canning pea, although it was grown commercially as a field pea to be sold dry. The marrow pea of the seed-saving networks is a dwarf variety, with white flowers and vines ranging from 14 to 16 inches tall. It is similar in many respects to Glory of England, but half the size. Planted at the beginning of June, this pea flowers by the end of the month when only a foot tall. The peas crop in early to mid-July and must be harvested daily, or they will turn starchy and bitter.
Named in honor of Queen Victoria’s husband, this pea was introduced in 1842 by the London seed firm of Cormack and Oliver. Fearing Burr (1865, 533) considered it indistinguishable from an old pea called Early Frame, a hothouse pea that was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites. In Jefferson’s day, Early Frame was among the first peas planted, usually under cold frames, and a prolific bearer of high quality peas. A strain of Early Frame developed by the Baltimore seed firm of R. Sinclair Jr. & Company in 1841 and marketed under the name Cedo Nulli or Sinclair’s Early is still extant in USDA seed archives.
Unfortunately, Fearing Burr was incorrect about Prince Albert; Early Frame was a bit shorter, about 4 feet tall. It exists, or existed until recently, in France under the names Michaux de Hollande, pois Baron, and pois Laurent. As far as I am concerned, if Prince Albert is like any other variety, then it is like Early Charlton, a pea that crops about 10 days later than Early Frame. The Prince Albert pea produces 6-foot vines with 2 1/2-inch pods that are stringy when young, for this is strictly a shelling pea, though a good one. It produces pairs of snowy white flowers on long stems. I would consider this one of its salient features for easy recognition. Incidentally, Prince Albert was not alone. The Victoria pea was introduced in 1841. The royal couple can still be grown together, but not too close, mind you, or they will cavort.
The Prussians are a type of pea dating from the eighteenth century that were once immensely popular in England and colonial America. Thomas Fessenden (1839, 149–50) considered them a good general pea for a wide range of American kitchen gardens. Seedsman Bernard M’Mahon mentioned them as part of his standard seed stock (1806, 582). Thomas Jefferson grew them in 1809 at Monticello. The list of famous Americans who grew this pea is long. Perhaps because Prussian Blue was developed in Germany, it was already better acclimated to North American conditions, for there is no question that it will thrive in most parts of the United States, except in the Southwest. It was also popular in France for this very same reason, and was known there as the nain vert petit, nain royal, and gros vert de Prusse. The truest strain of Prussian Blue produces vines about 3 1/2 feet tall with white flowers. The strain in circulation among seed savers (SSE PEA 89) is only about 2 feet tall and may be descended from Grooms Superb Dwarf Blue, introduced in 1831 as an improved strain of Prussian Blue. The pods measure 2 1/2 inches long and yield 7 or 8 peas per pod. The seed is round, smooth, and a dark blue-green verging on gray, hence the name. Since the vines are tall and narrow, three seeds are generally planted every 2 inches so that the plants can grow close together.
Prussian Blue was considered an excellent summer shelling pea by most American gardeners. It was not developed to be eaten fresh, but rather originally raised as a dry pea. Fearing Burr (1865, 514) suggested planting them the first of May for pod production in July — when wilt and a host of other viral problems are most likely to strike. I move planting back to mid-April, so the peas are normally finished podding by the end of June. Crops for culinary purposes can be harvested early, once the pods wilt, and then dried artificially, but seed stock must be vine ripened.
Prussian Blue makes an excellent split pea but, like any dry pea, should never be kept for more than a year. An insightful article, “Why Peas Boil Hard,” appeared in the Gardener’s Magazine (April 1831, 249) and explained that if peas are stored for too long, they will cook “hard,” never really softening no matter how long they are boiled. This observation is as true now as it was then, with one further footnote: peas stored two or three years have also lost a significant portion of their nutritional value. This is why it is important to date all stocks of dry peas and beans.
I always associate early June with sickle peas bobbing on their vines in a profusion of snowy white flowers, the pleasant hum of bees, and gooseberries. Peas and gooseberries do not mix, but they come to season at the same time, and for just a fleeting period on the calendar, my garden is transported to eighteenth-century England. For indeed, the Risser sickle pea is a bona fide eighteenth-century variety. It has been preserved by the Landis Valley Heirloom Seed Project in Pennsylvania, and while the seed came most recently from the Pennsylvania German community, the sickle pea itself has been raised in Pennsylvania since colonial times by both English-and German-speaking kitchen gardeners. The pea was known in England — the probable source for the Pennsylvania seed centuries ago — and mentioned specifically by Mawe and Abercrombie (1779, 482). By the 1830s it was not even a recognized variety by most English seedsmen, nor did Fearing Burr mention it. Yet it is an excellent old-fashioned pea and freer of maladies than many of the more highly inbred varieties.
The name derives from the shape of the pod, which is 2 1/2 to 3 inches long and curving like the blade of a sickle or crescent. The flowers are snowy white and borne on vines that can reach 8 feet in length if the soil is rich. Therefore, the plant requires sturdy support. The small pods are edible like sugar peas, or the peas may be shelled for petit pois, 6 to 7 peas per pod.
Named in honor of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, there are many variations of this wrinkled marrow pea, famous for its huge, fat pods: Tall Telephone Improved (SSE PEA 28), Dwarf Telephone or Carter’s Daisy, and its English equivalent known as Alderman (SSE PEA 432). One of the most popular of all American heirloom peas, this is a tall pea indeed, producing 7-to-8-foot vines with hundreds of pods that hang straight down. They measure about 4 to 4 1/2 inches in length and usually contain 8 peas, although there is also a certain percentage of empty pods. The peas are ideal for shelling, and the pods can be boiled to flavor broths and stocks. The fresh peas cook in a microwave oven in about 10 minutes on high.
The vines of Tall Telephone are top-heavy and need strong support, especially after the pods begin to form. Otherwise heavy rains or thunder-gusts will topple them, and the peas will spoil. Constant harvesting will lighten the vines and prolong the harvest, but to ensure a long supply of peas, plant Magnum Bonum for harvests later in the season.
Tom Thumb, named in honor of the famous nineteenth-century midget, was introduced by David Landreth and Sons, of Philadelphia, in the 1850s. It is a smooth-seeded pea that produces about 5 to 6 peas per pod on extremely dwarf vines no taller than 6 to 8 inches. If grown in the open in rich soil, the yield can be very high, but this pea was most often grown in cold frames for production over the winter, the reason for its small size. In the South, where its overwintering features could be cultivated to better advantage, Tom Thumb was usually planted in the late fall in rows 10 inches apart, the seeds planted about 2 per inch. The tiny flowers are white tinged with green.
I am not as enthusiastic about Tom Thumb as many gardeners in the South, mainly because there are other varieties that overtake and outproduce it in Pennsylvania, where we do not have the benefit of consistently mild winters. Yet its resistance to Freezing is impressive. One April, a cold snap of 26°F froze the ground for two days, but the peas survived unscathed. The vines were completely uncovered, a risk I took because they are said to be hardy to 20°F. However, as a cold-frame pea, Tom Thumb is probably one of the best, well adapted to polytunnel culture, and easily grown in large flats at table height. It is quite impressive to serve my own fresh peas to friends in January, and the point is well made that an efficient kitchen garden does not pause even for the winter solstice.
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Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver. Photo By Fotolia/Virynja.