Cowpeas, also called black-eyed peas or Southern peas, are a staple associated with meals in the American South. This nutritious, easy-to-grow legume can be grown just about anywhere though. Humans harvest and eat cowpea’s seeds, which look like peas (hence the moniker), but all parts of the plant have been used to feed cattle. This plant is also associated with good luck, especially in African American culture. It has become a tradition to eat cowpeas on New Year’s Day to usher in positive energy and good fortune for the coming year.
Whether you eat its seeds or not, cowpea looks great in the garden. It's a climbing vine with attractive leaves—each divided into three leaflets—and lavender-purple flowers throughout the summer.
Because cowpea is a heat-loving vine, it will grow on trellises, up arbors, and over teepees. These vine-covered structures add vertical interest to herb and vegetable gardens. And when placed strategically, they can provide privacy or lush green backdrops to beds and borders. Like most vegetables, cowpea also thrives in a container garden—either by itself or when paired with low-growing vegetables or herbs at its base.
How to Care For Cowpea
As you might expect from a Southern favorite, cowpea loves heat, humidity, and sultry summer weather in general. Plant it in a spot that sees full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sun each day) and well-drained soil. Unlike many vegetables, cowpea doesn't need nutrient-rich soil to thrive. It works with beneficial bacteria in the soil to produce its own nitrogen.
Cowpea is exceptionally drought-tolerant, so once the plant is established, you may only need to water it during extended periods of hot, parched weather. That being said, regular watering helps keep the vine healthy and helps you get the best possible harvest.
Start cowpea from seed. If you live in an area with short summers, start cowpea indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last expected spring frost date. Because this plant loves hot weather, plant it in the garden only after temperatures consistently stay above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
To avoid disease, plant cowpea in different spots of your yard every two or three years. Called crop rotation, this practice prevents harmful fungi and other organisms from building up in the soil. When rotating your vegetables, don't plant cowpea where you grew other legumes (including types of peas and beans) the previous year.