Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 1244 Vigna unguiculata

Common Names: cowpea,field pea,southern pea,black-eyed pea,horse gram,Catjang pea,yard-long bean Family: Fabaceae (bean Family)
Image Gallery

Pink Eye Purple Hull cowpea pods
Pink-eye Purple Hull southern pea pods
The cowpeas have showy flowers - this is a Cream 40 blossom.


The species, Vigna unguiculata, includes many kinds of edible legumes. Three subspecies are recognized. Vigna unguiculata ssp. unguiculata are the typical cowpeas, field peas or southern peas. This subspecies includes black-eyed peas, white acre, pink-eye purple hull, cream 40, zipper cream, and crowder peas, to name just a few of the many popular cultivars. Vigna unguiculata ssp. cylindrica are the marble peas, Catjang peas and Jerusalem peas, often used for animal feed and green manure to be plowed into the soil. The ssp. sesquipedalis includes the asparagus or yard-long beans, popular in oriental cookery.

Vigna unguiculata, in its various incarnations, is a trailing vine with glabrous stems and leaflets of three, the center leaflet being larger than the side ones. Some varieties can get up to 12 ft (3.6 m) long, sprawling over anything in their way. Most are annuals, but Vigna unguiculata ssp. cylindrica is a perennial. The flowers are typical bean-family flowers that are bilaterally symmetrical and often quite showy. The pods or “legumes” tend to be rather cylindrical and among the many varieties range from 3 in (7 cm) to more than 30 in (75 cm) in length. They are often borne in twos and splayed out on long slender petioles above the foliage. The seeds of most varieties have a darker colored hilum or “eye.”


Vigna unguiculata ssp. unguiculata was originally native to Central Africa, and includes the many varieties of southern peas or field peas so commonly grown in the southern U.S. Vigna unguiculata ssp. cylindrica is native to parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, and V. u. sesquipedalis, which includes the Asian yard-long bean, is native to southern Asia. Cowpeas are a very important and widely grown food and animal forage crop in Sub-Saharan Africa. They were brought to the Americas by slaves and championed by George Washington for their ability to thrive in the heat of the American South.


Light: Grow cowpeas in full sun. Moisture: Water your peas when the soil almost dries out, but more so when they are in flower. Cowpeas do well in poor, sandy soils, but not in clayey or poorly drained soil. They are surprisingly drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 10 . Field peas are warm season annuals and are damaged by the slightest frost. They don’t mind hot and humid weather. Propagation: Cowpeas like it hot, and seeds should not be sown until a late frost is out of the question and soil temperatures are around 70 °F (21°C). Plant seeds about an inch (2.5 cm) deep and 3-4 in (7-10 cm) apart. Although not necessary, most kinds of field peas will climb on a trellis (with help because they don’t have tendrils), and this keeps them off the ground and makes them easier to pick. Most varieties mature in 60-70 days. Do not apply nitrogen fertilizer to field peas; they make their own fertilizer.

Cream 40 (left) and Pink-eye Purple Hull (right) cowpeas await shelling.
shelled cowpeas
Bowls of shelled southern pea varieties: Cream 40 (top), Bossie Black (right) and Pink Eye (left)


According to most books and authorities, cowpeas and their relatives are grown for animal forage, as cover crops and as green manure. Tell that to an American Southerner who loves his black-eye peas! On the contrary, cowpeas are essential hot weather vegetables in the South, along with okra, another southern heat lover. It is widely considered essential for good luck to have black-eye peas on New Year’s Day.

Cowpeas can be used any way one would use common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). They are usually picked in the “shelling” stage – when the pods are still green and not yet dry, but contain fully formed beans inside. Easy to shell, store-bought pea shellers make it even easier for large batches. Often cooked with bacon or pork, field peas are just fine microwaved and served with butter. It is customary in the South to include a few “snaps” (small immature pods) in with the shelled beans.

Field peas, especially black-eyed peas, are often allowed to dry after which they are more easily stored. Prepare as you would for any dried bean: soak overnight, then simmer for an hour or two. In the U.S., Catjang peas are used mainly for hunters’ food plots. They are planted to feed and attract quail, turkey and deer.

Cowpeas are one of the most important and most widely used legumes in the tropical world. The young leaves and stems are eaten as a vegetable. In many areas, especially Australia, Brazil and Africa, cowpeas are grown for fertilizer to be plowed into the soil before planting sugar cane, corn or other valuable crops. The foliage is used for hay and silage. Green foliage can contain 14-21% protein, the beans up to 25%, and even the crop residue is as much as 6-8% protein.


The genus, Vigna, includes some 150 species. V. angularis (Adzuki bean) and V. radiata (Mung bean) are cultivated for their edible seeds and to be eaten as bean sprouts. A few species, including V. caracalla (corkscrew flower) are grown as ornamentals.

Several years ago I acquired a cowpea called Bossie because the beans are black and white, like a Holstein cow. When I grew them I noticed that a few beans were completely black and so I started saving those for replanting. Now I have a strain of field peas that are almost all totally black and I call it Bossie Black.

Steve Christman 9/28/15

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Vigna species profiled on Floridata:

Vigna angularis

( adzuki bean, azuki bean, red bean, aduki bean )

Vigna unguiculata

( cowpea,field pea,southern pea,black-eyed pea,horse gram,Catjang pea,yard-long bean )

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