August 17, 2017

A Crop That’s a Little Bit Nutty

Arachis hypogaea, peanut - from Köhler's 'Medizinal-Pflanzen'

Arachis hypogaea, peanut | Credit: Wikimedia Commons - from Köhler's 'Medizinal-Pflanzen' 1897 (PD-US – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

• By Janine Pineo •

I am nuts.

It’s not hard to admit. Being a gardener can make you that way. Usually it’s because something isn’t cooperating: rainfall, temperature, wildlife.

Then there are the temptations that lure the unsuspecting into making wacky decisions that drive them crazy before the fruits and nuts of their labors ripen.

I bought a half-pound of jumbo Virginia peanuts. Not to eat, at least not until they’ve been buried underground for a few months. No, these are planting peanuts, little seeds just waiting for some soil, water and sunshine.

Right about now you’re thinking, “She’s nuts.” But long have I heard the tale that my grandmother grew them once, and if Nana can, so can I.

I’m not unfamiliar with traditionally Southern crops, such as okra and sweet potatoes. I grew sweet potatoes last year, and while it wasn’t as successful as it would have been if my garden existed several hundred miles south of its present location, it wasn’t a total disaster. The leaves were really pretty.

So now I turn to peanuts. They’re cheaper than sweet potato slips and, quite frankly, I like to eat peanuts a whole lot more.

Peanuts, or Arachis hypogaea for you Latin nuts, also are called groundnuts or earthnuts. I read that they’re also known as goobers, although I don’t know what would prompt that sort of name-calling.

This legume is one of nature’s most highly concentrated foods. Ounce for ounce, peanuts have more protein, minerals and vitamins than beef liver, more fat than heavy cream and more calories than sugar. I imagine peanuts taste better than liver with a dollop of whipped cream.

A native to South America, the peanut was introduced and grown in the Old World tropics region. Over the years, India, China and the United States became the biggest producers of peanuts for commercial use, mostly for peanut oil. The exception is the United States, which crushes only a small amount of the crop for oil. About half of the U.S. peanuts are destined for peanut butter, with a goodly amount being consumed as snacks and in baked goods.

The commercial worth of peanuts soared only within the past 100 years, after George Washington Carver started experimenting with peanuts. Because the peanut is a nitrogen-fixing legume, Carver urged farmers to plant peanuts to improve soil stripped of nutrients after years of unrelenting cotton crops. With increased production came the need to find a market for peanuts, which Carver did by developing 300 products using peanuts, from cheese and milk to coffee, flour, plastics, linoleum, wood stains, soaps and cosmetics. (He developed 118 products from sweet potatoes, including rubber, ink and postage stamp glue.)

I have less ambitious goals in mind, like just getting a few plants to mature. If the directions are to be believed, the growing part should be easy.

The seeds from Burpee are still in the shell, but the company recommends removing them for a better germination rate. Once shelled, the peanuts should be planted in well-drained, sandy loam four to six inches apart in a 2-inch-deep furrow. It takes 10 to 15 days for seedlings to emerge, and after they reach a couple of inches in height, they should be thinned eight to 12 inches apart.

This particular variety of peanut sends out vines with a 3 1/2-foot spread. It needs 120 frost-free days to mature (bring on the heavy-duty row covers), after which the entire plant should be uprooted and hung to dry in an airy location or on poles outside so the pods can cure. Then the peanuts — 50 to 60 pods per plant, if all goes well — can be removed from the vines.

Even if the peanuts aren’t a success, the plants themselves should put on quite a display. In my quest for peanut knowledge, I discovered that the plants do a rather curious thing after they flower, which is odd in its own way, too.

The tiny golden yellow blossoms nestle in the leaves’ axils and what looks like the flower stalk rising above the blossoms is actually the calyx, or protective leaves, of the flower. Once pollination occurs, a structure called a peg grows toward the soil from the base of the flower. As it grows, the end of the peg will be pushed underground. In the tip of this peg are the fertilized ovules that will develop into the recognizable peanut pods.

To a certain extent, the pods work as roots, absorbing minerals from the soil. A crucial nutrient is calcium; a lack of it may result in poorly developed pods no matter how many other minerals are available.

I can only hope pitiful pods will not occur in my garden, but if they do, I could use the peanut plant as livestock feed, which is what the encyclopedia says farmers do down South.

That would work — if I had livestock.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in April 1999.

Update: The peanuts grew — very pretty little plants — but the crop was less than spectacular. One prefers to blame the weather, which means another try at growing peanuts is a good idea, even for Maine. That’s why we’ve got a packet of seeds waiting to hit the ground for 2012.