Florida is about as southern as one can get and still be in the continental United States. Maryland, where I garden, is just barely southern. Heck, it's not southern at all by some measures. But Florida and Maryland gardeners can both enjoy cream peas. And there's a lot of acreage between us that should give these tasty peas a try.

Cream peas are part of a group of beans called southern peas. The "pea-sized" beans of southern peas can be shelled and eaten fresh, or can be dried. Cream peas in particular cook up creamy and tender, slightly sweet and nutty. As they cook, they yield a light tasty broth, unlike the dark liquor of other, starchier, southern peas. Some think of cream peas as the most "ladylike" of the southern peas.

None of these beans are well known or even regularly seen at produce stands or dinner tables in my part of Maryland. The story goes that they weren't even invited to the self-respecting Southern dinner table for a time. Most people regarded southern peas as just animal feed, so the folklore says, until hard times "encouraged" putting peas on the dinner table. Even the leaves of cream peas can be eaten. Harvesting of leaves would decrease bean yield, but young tender leaves of southern peas can be used as a nutritious greeen vegetable.

Cream peas are not the only southern pea that will grow in many non-southern areas of the US. But cream peas are the ones my sister and I have grown and eaten. We can attest to their tastiness and ease of care. Here are the simple basics of growing cream peas.

Growing cream peas

Finding and choosing seed: Southern gardeners may have choices in local seed suppliers, but the rest of us can turn to mail order and online sources. Some seed vendors are listed at the end of the article. Varieties - days to maturity - description

  • Zipper Cream- 66 to 75 days (sources vary) - Probably the most popular variety, Zipper pods open very easily when you want to shell the beans.
  • Fast Lady Northern Southern Pea - 55 day - A short maturity means this pea can be grown in many parts of the US. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange says it was selected to grow in Oregon, and is quicker to cook as well.
  • White Acre - 62 days An heirloom with excellent yield on vigorous plants, it is more difficult to get the peas from the pods than with Zipper.
  • Texas Cream (8, 12, 40, etc are various cultivars) - 80 days - Various cultivars developed by Texas Agricultural Experiment Station decades ago.

Temperature: If you can grow green beans you can grow cream peas. Plant the peas when soil has warmed to about 60 degrees, the temperature range for cucumbers, tomatoes, and other summer crops. This usually means it is safe to plant cream peas about 3 - 4 weeks after last frost in spring. But don't rush planting, though; cool soil can rot the seed or produce weak plants.

Exposure: Like almost all vegetable crops, cream peas need full sun, six or more hours of direct sun.

Soil: Cream peas grow in average, reasonably fertile garden soil. Cream peas are a nitrogen fixing crop like other legumes. Their roots can gather nitrogen more efficiently than other types of plants. If you question your soil's fertility, you may fertilize lightly before planting.

How to plant and care: Plant about an inch deep and 2 to 3 inches apart in rows. (I grew my cream peas as a block, seeds spaced about 6-8 inches apart in a block about four feet square.) Water until the beans emerge. These beans are drought tolerant once they begin to grow well.

Harvest: Cream peas bloom at the tops of the plants and produce skinny pods to 8 inches long with ten or more little beans in each. Pods start green, then change to buff as they ripen. Harvest the peas as soon as the pods are filled out. The peas are delicious and nutty right off the plant in the green stage. Or let the pods turn buff, pick them, and let them dry on the kitchen counter. They are very easy to shell out after the pods have dried. Freeze the peas or let shelled peas dry and seal them in an airtight container.

I grew a lovely crop of cream peas last summer. I ate some of them right in the garden, just as I do English peas. But I picked many more and saved them as dried beans. I let the pods dry in a basket in the kitchen. The peas popped easily out of the dried pods. By season's end, I had a couple of cups of dried cream peas. I was afraid to ruin my wonderful peas, so I waited for my sister to visit and cook them for us. Here's how she cooks cream peas:

Sue's Sublime Cream Peas

Soak dried cream peas as you would other dried beans.

For each cup of dried cream peas, use a tablespooon or two of oil, a quarter cup of finely diced onion and up to a half cup of ham. Some chopped tender greens are a lovely optional addition.

Saute the onion in the oil until softened, stir in the meat, and brown slightly. Drain the soaked peas, add peas to the pot, and add just enough water to cover them. Add chopped greens if using. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cover. Simmer until they are tender, only adding water to keep them just covered. You don't want to dilute the tasty liqour. Beans should be done in about an hour. Serve as a side dish in bowls with some of the delicious broth.

Trsut us, you will be amazed at how good these simple cream peas taste!

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Resources and thanks

Thanks especially to my sister for introducing me to cream peas!

Special thanks to Farmerdill, Dave'sGarden Uber Gardener, for his numerous and informative entries in our Plantfiles regarding vegeable varieties.

Some sources for cream pea seed:

  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange http://www.southernexposure.com/
  • Victory Seed http://www.victoryseeds.com/peas_southern.html
Want to try before you grow them? Camellia Brand Lady Cream Peas. http://www.camelliabrand.com/products/lady-cream-peas/