Vigna unguiculata: Cowpeas

Family: Fabaceae
Common name: Long beans, Cowpea, Southern pea, Black-eyed pea, Crowder pea, Cowpea beans, Yard long beans

One of the most common vegetables cultivated in my hometown, Kerala, India, Long beans or Achinga as we call them, is used extensively in Indian cuisine. There are many variants of cowpeas, that grow erect, partially erect or climbing.

The most commonly seen variant is the climbing one that can reach a height of 2 meters by climbing on support, or by trailing along the ground. It is better to provide some support for the plants to climb on, so that pest infestation will be lower.

Leaves are trifoliolate with one larger leaf in the center and 2 smaller ones towards the sides. Cowpea flowers range in color from purple, blue, pink, yellow and white with 2-4 flowers on each peduncle or stalk.

These flowers later form long fruits ranging in length from 10 cms to 100 cms depending on the species. These long seedpods can contain 5-15 kidney-shaped seeds attached to the pods at their ‘eye’. The seeds range in color from white, cream, purple, green, black and some combination of colors as well, with speckled and mottled peas too.

They eye is prominent and black in some species, giving it the name Black-eyed pea. Depending on the species, these seeds can be long or rounded, stuck to the seedpods or easily detachable, and also vary in flavor when cooked.

Seedpods can be cooked and eaten when they are tender. Once the seedpods mature, they cannot be used in dishes since they have a fibrous texture. But the seeds inside are more flavorsome at this time. Leaves are also eaten cooked or raw when they are tender.

Cowpeas can be harvested at all stages, depending on the requirement. Tender leaves are harvested for food and fodder when the plant is very young; young seedpods are harvested for food before they ripen; and older seedpods are harvested for their seeds after they mature and turn brown. Cowpeas are used to make curries, salads, stews, snacks; and is even powdered and used to make porridges for children.

High protein content of the seeds make them ideal food for vegetarians and in regions where proteins are not easily available. Sprouted seeds are also very tasty, and is used in salads and curries.

As legumes belonging to the family Fabaceae, Cowpeas have Rhizobium nitrogen-fixing bacteria that take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form that’s usable by plants, a process called nitrogen fixation. This helps improve the quality of soil for other plants as well.

Cowpeas can thrive in poor soil, irrigation and fertilization making it an easy crop to grow. But it can be subject to many pest and insect infestations pre and post-harvest, leading to heavy losses in yield. Regular spraying of neem extracts and other natural pesticides are essential, especially when the plants start flowering and fruiting.

Propagation is from seeds that have a very good germination rate. Dried seeds can even be grown as microgreens in small boxes kept on windowsills.

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