Whippoorwill Cowpea

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The cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) originated in Africa and is one of the oldest domesticated crops. Cowpeas were brought to the Americas during the slave trade and are still grown throughout the Southern and Southwestern US, where they are also known as field peas, southern peas, or crowder peas. In addition to being grown for food, cowpeas are used as forage for livestock (including cattle, hence the common name “cowpea”) and as a cover crop. Its ability to fix nitrogen makes the cowpea well suited for intercropping and rotational cropping, and its drought tolerance makes it a valuable crop in arid regions.

The whippoorwill, once immensely popular, is now a rare variety. It grows as a bush, a few feet high, but will send out runners about 5 feet long given enough nutrients and moisture. It is highly tolerant of heat and drought, and quite productive. The flowers are purple and the pods, which grow to about 9 inches long, are green with a purplish tinge. The peas themselves are small and light brown with dark brown speckles. There is also a rare alternative form that is white with a brown eye. The plant becomes fully mature and dry in 85-90 days, but can be harvested as a fresh pea 70-75 days after seeding. Whippoorwill cowpeas are delicious cooked with hog jowls, and can also be used in the traditional Southern dish “Hoppin’ John,” which also includes rice and pork (usually bacon).

Initially grown by slaves as a provisional crop, the whippoorwill (known as the shinney pea until the early 20th century) gained popularity across the Southeast during the first half of the 19th century, when farmers started planting legumes in rotation with corn, sugarcane, cotton, and other crops in order to restore soils that had become impoverished by over exploitation. Thomas Jefferson grew whippoorwill cowpeas in the orchard at Monticello, Virginia. The whippoorwill was particularly appreciated due to its superior taste (described as rich, earthy, and “peanut buttery”) and texture (creamy, not chalky), as well as the fact that it could be cropped twice each year: The first crop was planted in April and harvested in mid-July, after which a second crop was seeded, to be harvested with the first frosts around the middle of November. A survey conducted in 1911 revealed that the whippoorwill was among the top five most popular cowpea varieties in each of the Southern states. As the whippoorwill became more widespread, so it became increasingly susceptible to pests and diseases. By the middle of the 20th century, as farmers turned to more productive and resistant varieties, the whippoorwill had ceased being cultivated on a large scale.

Efforts to revive the whippoorwill cowpea have been underway since the 1990s and early 2000s, and it is available through several heirloom seed companies. Home gardeners and a few farmers continue to grow this variety, and it is sold at some farmers’ markets. However, it is still not grown commercially.

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StateUnited States

Southwestern US

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Nominated by:Ark of Taste Committee for the U. S. South