Bisbee Black Cowpea

Botanical name:

Vigna unguiculata

Local Name:

Black-eyed pea or Crowder pea

Collection site:

Bisbee, Arizona

Collection date:

1985

Historical Origins:

Cowpeas were domesticated in Africa around 5,000-6,000 years ago, and are still an important food and fodder resource across that continent. They came to the Americas with the slave trade, and eventually moved across this continent following the path of African slaves. Cowpeas were part of Spanish missionary gardens in the Southwest, and because of their drought and heat tolerance, they quickly became a favorite crop within O’odham fields.

Cultural uses:

All parts of the plant are edible. The shoots and immature pods can be eaten when there are few other greens available. The dried seeds or cowpeas, are cooked and then eaten in a wide variety of dishes from salads to curries. They are popular within Southwestern cuisine where they are an important ingredient in the African American soul food cuisine.

Nutritional benefits:

Cowpeas are high in amino acids such as lysine and tryptophan. They contain high quantities of fiber, digestible carbohydrates, calcium, folate, and vitamin A.

Socio-cultural importance:

During the American Civil War, cowpeas became a survival food. The plants, along with field corn, were considered only good enough for cattle fodder by the soldiers and so were not burned and destroyed like other crops and dried food stashes. Today, there is a Southern tradition of eating cowpeas on New Year’s Day. It is said to bring good luck into the coming year. Cowpeas are cooked with pork and diced onion, and then served with a chile sauce or pepper flavored vinegar. This dish is accompanied by collard or mustard greens and ham. Symbolically, the cowpeas swell during cooking, and are said to represent prosperity. The greens signify money and the pork stands for a positive forward motion because pigs rood forward when they forage in the wild.

The Bisbee Black cowpea variety traveled through many hands before reaching Native Seeds/SEARCH. During the 1980's, James Cowan from Stella, Missouri, met a truck driver who had been given the seeds in Bisbee, Arizona by an unidentified Native American. James said that the truck driver gave the cowpeas to him in a jar mixed with other seeds and he separated out the black and red cowpeas to grow them. “They sure are drought hardy,” wrote James in a letter to Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1985. Native Seeds/SEARCH also conserves the Bisbee Red cowpea variety found within James Cowan's jar of mixed seeds.

Cowpeas come in many different colors including black, red, tan, maroon, speckled, white and black, and the distinctive white with a black eye.

Cultivation Technigues:

This is a desert-adapted and drought-hardy plant which loves the heat. Cowpeas can be more successfully dry-farmed, grown without the use of supplemental water, than most other beans. Cowpeas can grow in soils with little organic matter and high levels of sand, making this crop ideal for cultivation in the Southwest. Being shade-tolerant, cowpeas are often intercropped with taller plants such as maize, sorghum, millet, sugarcane, and cotton. They have the ability to fix nitrogen to the soil.

References:

Dunmire, William W. (2004). Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Food Changes America. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Nelson, Suzanne. (2006). Cowpeas. The Seedhead News, 95.

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