January 28, 2020

All in the Family: Peas, Vetch, Lupine Enrich the Earth

A variety of edible-podded peas, both snow and snap

Janine Pineo Photo | A variety of edible-podded peas, both snow and snap

• By Janine Pineo •

A pea seed is a wondrous thing.

Stick one in the dirt, add a few showers and a dollop of sunshine, and in a few short days up pops a pea plant.

We all know there’s a whole lot of science involved, but I like the mysterious way something so terribly small turns into something so vibrantly big.

Since Memorial Day weekend, seeds have been metamorphosing all over my vegetable garden. Nearly every day has brought a new shade of green, from the neon green of new lettuce to the frosty green of onions to the rich green of potatoes.

But there’s something different about peas. Maybe it’s the way they send up those tendrils before unfurling their leaves. Maybe it’s because of those vines that twirl and twine around anything — weed, post, trellis or fellow pea — in their path. Or it could be simply because I like to eat peas.

I remember how I shelled peas when I was a child, popping open the rounded end of the pod and then dragging my thumb along the inside to remove the peas. I probably ate more than I ever put in a bowl.

I don’t plant that kind of pea in the vegetable patch, possibly because the harvest is too much work (do you know how many of those teeny-weeny peas it takes to make a meal?). I prefer not to waste the fruits of my labors, so I plant snap peas and snow peas. These varieties with edible pods are delicious raw, stir-fried and steamed. They’re also easy to freeze (just blanch them).

My love of this vegetable extends to pea relatives, a family that ranges from clover to lupine to vetch. Unfortunately, we in Maine are not subject to infestations of those wacky North American pea cousins, such as locoweed, crazyweed, silverleaf scurf pea or showy rattlebox. Unfortunately.

Last year I discovered a gem of a plant, birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), while on vacation. The sunny, yellow flowers are tiny, only about a half-inch long, but they put on quite a show en masse. One wildflower guide says that farmers in Prince Edward Island used this European native as a forage crop. As nature would have it, a few plants escaped the plows and cows to grow wild on the island.

Also noteworthy about the pea family is that all members improve soil fertility by turning atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants can use to grow. Long before we knew better, the National Audubon Society Wildflower Guide says, folks believed those weedy lupine sucked all the nutrients out of the soil, hence its erroneous name derived from the Latin word lupus for wolf. Lupine and its relatives don’t “wolf” down all the good minerals; they are making life a little better for their neighbors.

That’s why I plan to sow hairy vetch this fall. Vicia villosa is considered one of the best green manures for fixing the soil with that important building block of nitrogen. I have high hopes that a good crop of this plant will improve the soil quality of the vegetable patch next spring, when it can be plowed in before planting.

But let’s forget the utilitarian and move on to aesthetic pleasures, namely the sweet pea. This old-fashioned delight is my favorite flower of all flowers.

Technology, however, has hurt the sweet pea. That enchanting fragrance — unlike any other I’ve ever smelled — got lost with the newer cultivars that produced bigger flowers and stronger stems.

Who needs bigger and stronger? Give me delicate if it’s accompanied by that unforgettable perfume. It did take me a few years to figure out which varieties have less scent, but I learned to look for the heirlooms.

For the past couple of years, I have planted Painted Lady, the first named cultivar of sweet pea, dating back to 1737. The small flowers are bicolored with a rose standard petal (the bigger petal) and light pink wing petal (the smaller petal). For such a small flower, the fragrance is intoxicating.

Painted Lady is becoming more widely available; this year I got seeds from Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, which delighted me with its special collection of heirloom sweet peas that included Painted Lady.

In the collection is another piece of history, the sweet pea Cupani (also known as Matucana). According to a fact sheet included with the collection, this variety is named for Father Cupani, who was a Franciscan monk in Sicily. He, it is said, sent seeds to a schoolmaster in England in 1699. The first record of this variety growing in England is dated 1701. At some point, Cupani seeds were taken to South America and then brought back with a new name: Matucana, which is a city outside Lima, Peru.

Cupani is called a true-breeding species because each flower pollinates itself before it blossoms (weird, huh?), which means there’s not much of a chance to hybridize, so the plants stay true to type year after year.

This nearly 300-year-old variety has small flowers with a deep maroon standard and orchid-violet wing petal. I fully expect to hyperventilate over this one.

If those two weren’t enough, Shepherd’s added one more cultivar to the collection: America. It was 1896 when gardeners first got a chance to plant this sweet pea. I can hardly wait for this one because it’s “tomato red, overlaid with stripes and stippled markings of creamy white.”

Oh, happy birthday, America.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 1996.