Friday, June 3, 2011

People Who Stare at Pea Vines

Back in March, I fell prey to two lovely packets of exotic peas from The Baker Creek Seed Bank in downtown Petaluma: Golden Sweet and -- wait for it -- Blue-Podded Blauwschokkers (which sound to me like some kind of Shakespearean insult: "Thou knave! Thou cur! Thou Blue-Podded Blauwschokker!").

On March 14 I planted the seeds in two rows along the northwest fence and hoped for the best. Peas have never been a dependable crop for me.

They have done splendidly! The lingering cool, wet weather this spring has been hard on the summer seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant but the peas are loving it. Some of the vines are over six feet tall. As of early June, the Golden Sweet are producing myriad pale lemon pods, punctuated by a few dark-blue Blauwschokkers here and there.

There wasn't much information on the seed packets about these strikingly beautiful varieties so I went searching on the internet. One discovery was a delightful blog -- Daughter of the Soil -- by an amateur pea-breeder who fits my stereotype of the English gardener as someone with a day job and an ordinary yard (in terms of size) whose passion for plants soars to a dizzying level of horticultural wisdom. After reading her post on her meticulously-observed vines of Golden Sweet I had to run out to the yard and take a much closer look at my own vines.

Why hadn't I noticed the delicate golden color of the stems holding the blossoms, or marveled at the pale gold sepals and the subtle splash of red at the base of the leaf axils? (One reason could be that I did not know what "sepals" and "axils" are. Now that I have the labels I am empowered to see what is right in front of me.)

I will take some credit for noticing -- on my own -- that the demure pink blossoms with darker interior petals (there's probably a term for those, too) do not open wide but stay compact like tiny bonnets.

I did not notice that the blossoms change color as they mature, turning light blue with dark blue interior petals. The one pictured above is on the same vine as the pink one shown at the top of this post. It's the next blossom down.

Slightly lower on the same vine a couple of golden pods are starting to emerge. (And notice also the dark Blauwschokker pod lurking in the background.)

Lower still, on the same vine, are pods that could be picked now and eaten as is, like snow peas. We might try some of them in a stir fry, but I think I will wait for most of the crop to fill out as shelling peas.

According to Daughter of the Soil, the Golden Sweet variety is thought to come originally from India. Eventually it -- or something very like it -- appeared in the monastery gardens of Gregor Mendel in 1860s Austria. Yellow-poddedness was one of the traits he worked with in his experiments.

What about the Blauwschokkers? They, too, are putting on a colorful show. Their lovely two-toned pink blossoms are much more dramatic, flaring widely on green stems, cradled by green sepals. These are at the top of a seven foot vine.

Like the Golden Sweet, their blossoms change color as they age. Slightly lower down the same vine, here are a couple of specimens gone blue and limp. They are easy to distinguish from the blue-tinged Golden Sweet by the ruffly shape and the green sepals.

Here are the majestic pods, more purple than blue. These peas are also called Capucijners (Cap-you-sign-ners) after the Capuchin monks who developed the variety in the 1500s. Mendel was not the only one growing pea vines up the monastery walls.

In the Netherlands and other parts of Europe these peas have been a winter staple for centuries. They are used as dry peas to make soup and reportedly produce their own delicious gravy.

I'm sure we will get around to actually eating some of our very promising pea harvest, but for now the colorful display and the interesting back stories will more than suffice to justify the investment of time. I'm just the latest in a long line of people staring at pea vines with admiration and wonderment.

"Thou jewel! Thou star! Thou Golden Sweet! Thou Blue-Podded Blauwschokker!"

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