Eat Your Blackeyed Peas

By Steven Foster |

People often ask me if they can grow something here in the Ozarks that was the same plant or group of plants that they could grow wherever it was that they came from, be it New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, Florida or California. In almost every instance one of the major limiting factors between the Ozarks and wherever you came from, is that back there—wherever “there” might be—they had soil. Here in the Ozarks, that dirt underfoot is a poor excuse for soil.


We live in a tough landscape, despite our abundance of water and somewhat intact forests. The hot, dry summers and marginally productive soils challenge survival skills especially in times of food insecurity. Among the agricultural plants that provided a food source when all else fails are beans collectively known as cowpeas or field peas (Vigna unguiculata) which includes acre peas, blackeyed peas, cream peas, crowder peas, southern peas, table peas and whippoorwills, among others. In the South these are grown by home gardeners and seed collectors, replaced by soybeans in mega-agriculture as a small dry bean with high protein content that grows on marginal land.

All of these small, dry peas or beans come from Vigna unguiculata, which is believed to originate in dry lands in Africa, and was grown in Arabia and Asia Minor before the Christian era and found in northwestern India, present-day Pakistan and adjacent Persia (Iran) in ancient times. It was known in China by at least the fourteenth century. It arrived in Jamaica somewhere between 1672 and 1687, and one might speculate that captive African slaves managed to smuggle the seeds with them from West Africa. It was known in Florida by 1775. George Washington acquired seeds and grew it out at Mount Vernon around 1797.

George Washington Carver (whose birthplace is a National Monument in Diamond, Missouri, south of Joplin) promoted the planting and development of black-eyed peas, now associated with Southern cuisine and soul food.

The tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck to celebrate the New Year is synonymous with American Southern tradition. Coming from Maine originally, I never heard of it until moving to Arkansas. However, it is not a tradition that originated in the American South, but stems from a tradition to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (from about the year 500). Black-eyed peas swell when cooked, symbolizing prosperity. On New Year’s day, remember to eat black-eyed peas before you buy a lottery ticket.


Campbell, B.C. 2014. Just Eat Peas and Dance: Field Peas (Vigna unguiculata) and Food Security in the Ozark Highlands, US. Journal of Ethnobiology 34(1):104-122.

Wright, W.F. 1907. History of the Cowpea and its Introduction into America. USDA Bureau of Plant Industries Bulletin 102: 43-59.


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Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-six years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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