Peas, perfect peas

Fildes, Luke; Girl Shelling Peas; Warrington Museum & Art Gallery;

Girl Shelling Peas, by Luke Fildes, Warrington Museum & Art Gallery;

Move over Capability Brown, you have to share your year of fame with peas!  It has probably slipped your notice (as I confess it did mine) but the United Nations has declared 2016 to be the ‘International Year of Pulses’ (IYP) , so here’s a post to celebrate one of our most popular vegetables.screenshot



In the search for perfection modern peas have, like so many other plant crops, been industrialized.  Varieties have been selected that ripen at the same time, and grow on dwarf plants that are easy to harvest mechanically.

Clarence Birdseye from

That has advantages of course, especially in terms of economics, but the downside is that it means that most people will never have the chance to sample the  huge variety of tastes and textures that once existed on a commercial scale but now only cling on as heritage varieties.

And if you don’t recognize the man  in the photo or know what he has got to do with peas then read on…


Archaeology suggests that peas are amongst the oldest food plants. Their geographical origins are uncertain, but evidence points to two separate and independent breakthroughs in domesticating peas. The first and largest one occurred when Pisum sativum, which accounts for nearly all the modern cultivated peas worldwide,  was taken into domestication in central asia/Afghanistan. A second  smaller-scale success occurred when peas began to be deliberately cultivated in the mountains of Ethiopia. These ‘Abyssinian peas’ have a much more complicated and uncertain taxonomy.

Pisum sativum L. [as Pisum arvense L.] Bourdichon, J., Grandes Heures Anne de Bretagne, p. 97 ()

Pisum sativum L. [as Pisum arvense L.]
from Les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne

Evidence of the earliest wild sorts, turn up at sites near what is now the Burmese/Thai border nearly nearly 12,000 years ago, but domesticated peas have been found in archaeological sites in Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean dating back to around 7-8000 BC. Peas then  spread across Europe, Africa and Asia with Neolithic agriculture. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these were sweet little green delicacies fit for freezing by a certain jolly bearded Captain, because the likelihood is that these historic strains were as tough as old boots .

However they also had high protein content, were easy to grow and above all stored well once dried. And using them dried continued to be  the principal way peas were eaten until comparatively recently, either as flour and made into bread mixed with wheat or rye, or soaked and used for a kind of porridge, as in the famous rhyme: “pease pottage hot, pease pottage cold and pease pottage in the pot nine days old.”

from Gerard's Herbal of 1597

from Gerard’s Herbal of 1597

These ‘primitive’ kind of peas, which have coloured flowers and small pods, later became known as field peas. In the 16thc garden writers like Gerard began to distinguish between them and what they called garden peas which usually have larger pods and white flowers.

from Gerard's Herbal of 1597

from Gerard’s Herbal of 1597

The fashion for eating peas fresh and green is thought to have originated in Italy and then  was introduced to France as one of the favourite foods of  Catherine de Medici when she married Henri II in 1533.  I think she’d be a bit shocked to find that if you ‘google’  piselli novelli  now all you get are images of bags of frozen peas. But legend has it that as  a result of her patronage fresh green peas soon became  the fashionable choice for the elite, whilst  the coarser dried field peas then became seen as food fit only for peasants and pigs..

Kern, Hermann; Old Man Shelling Peas; Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service;

Kern, Hermann; Old Man Shelling Peas; Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service;

Fresh Gathered Peas Young Hastings; Cries of London, Vendramini, Giovanni, 1795 V&A

“Fresh Gathered Peas Young Hastings” from Giovanni Vendramini, Cries of London,1795 V&A

Around that time too we find the first  English pea that had a proper name. It was called  “Hastings” and was popular enough to feature in a street cry:  “fresh gathered peas, young Hastings” but it has nothing to do with the town instead it means very early, probably deriving from the same root as hasty  and the French word hatif or early.  Hastings continued to be used as a term for very early peas right through into the 19thc.


from Gerard’ s Herbal

Our next ‘named’ pea is  the Rouncival (although there are lots of other spelling variations) because it was apparently first grown in England in the garden of the chapel of St. Mary of Rounceval, at Charing Cross, London. It maybe that it was brought to England  by the Augustinian monks of Roncesvalles in Navarre who established the London chapel.

Rouncival peas are mentioned in   Thomas Tusser’s Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1570), a popular book which summarised useful information about housekeeping and farming. In January when ‘better time there is not’…”Dig Gardain, stroy malow now may ye at ease, and set (as a deintie) thy runcyfall pease” Being called ‘a dainty’ suggests that unlike most peas, which were left to mature, Rouncivals were eaten when green.  They were to remain popular in plant lists for the next 300 years or so. screenshot

And unlike many fashions the taste for fresh peas didn’t date. Indeed just the opposite:  it spread down the social pecking order too. Popularity led the start of the search for the perfect pea!

The numbers of kinds of peas in cultivation now started to increase. John Parkinson writing in  Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris in 1629  noted: “There is a very great variety of … Pease known to us, and I think more in our Country then in others”  and he lists 9 sorts although ” Garden Pease are for the most part the greatest and sweetest kinds” .  By the 2nd edition of 1656, published six years after his death,  green peas were more common, although unsurprisingly the “fairest”, sweetest, youngest and earliest peas were eaten by the rich, and  the later, “meaner” and lower priced peas were eaten by the poor. But it was still the case as Thomas Fuller observed around the same time  that the best sort were imported, especially from Holland, and they “were dainties for ladies, they came so far and cost so dear.”

Ruoppolo, Giovanni Battista; Still Life of Flowers and Vegetables; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology;

Still Life of Flowers and Vegetables by Giovanni Ruoppolo,  The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology;

Post-Restoration things changed fast. Peas   began featuring widely in all the gardening books.   John Worlidge, for example,  claiming that “the sweete and delicate sort… have been introduced to our gardens only in this latter age”. [Systema Horti-culturae, 1677].   Others  like Leonard Meager’s The English Gardener of 1683, give detailed instructions on how to cultivate peas and which sorts to plant to extend the season as much as possible. He tells us that  “The Hotspur‘s become the soonest.”   Hotspur was a famous pea – if you ‘ll excuse the idea of a pea being famous- and was used for breeding still better varieties right through until the early 19thc.

From 'De Bykorf des gemoeds', 1711, Jan Luyken1711

Shelling peas from ‘De Bykorf des gemoeds’, 1711, Jan Luyken


By  1727 Stephen Switzer devoted a whole chapter of his Practical Kitchen Gardiner to peas, ending the introduction by telling his readers that peas “when young and gently boil’d … are now accounted one of the greatest delicacies of the garden”. Switzer lists “almost an infinite number of species distinct from one another, either in the colour of their flowers, or shape, or goodness of the pease; as Edward’s Greens, Flanders Barnes, long hotspur pease, grey, brown, green, white, roncival or large pease, large white, small white, grey and dwarf sugar pease; egg, sickle, Dutch Admiral, winged crown or rose pease; to which may be added, the Reading, Spanish, Morotto and marrow fat pease, excellent good in their kind.”

Tayler, Albert Chevallier; Girl Shelling Peas; Penlee House Gallery & Museum;

Girl Shelling Peas, Albert Taylor,             Penlee House Gallery & Museum;

Unlike carrots for some reason [see previous post at:]  peas don’t feature in many early paintings, not even in  Dutch still lives and market scenes, and  I wonder if that’s simply a question of size – or the fact that they are not brightly coloured or exotic looking enough? The one period when they do appear – but as “stage props” rather than as subjects in their own right is the 19thc when, as you can see, it became popular to show them being shelled, as part of a domestic composition, Certainly it shows that the popularity of the pea had spread across all social classes and it made  the 19thc  the golden age of the pea [if that makes colour sense!]

from H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

from H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

Much of this must have been down to the obsession of Thomas Andrew Knight, president of the Horticultural Society of London [later the Royal Horticultural Society] from 1811 to 1838,  He’ll be the subject for a post soon but suffice it to say for now that he was the brother of Richard Payne Knight, was  independently wealthy and so had time and money  to pursue his wide-ranging interests in plant breeding, biology and botany.  Sometime before 1787 he apparently discovered a peculiar wrinkled pea which he crossed experimentally to produce a series of wrinkled cultivars that were known as marrow fats.  Knight’s peas  were sweeter and less starchy. It was discovered in the 1990s that this wrinkliness or smoothness was simply due to a difference in starch enzymes.screenshot

from H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

from H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

Incidentally Knight didn’t just work on improving peas – he tried cattle and sheep as well as fruit trees, strawberries, cabbages and potatoes.  His experiments were the first recorded attempt to deliberately produce new varieties under control conditions. He  tried the same methodology that Gregor Mendel was to use some 70-80 years later, but unlike Mendel  Knight didn’t make the intellectual leap to begin to formulate the laws of inheritance and genetics. He was much more concerned with the practical impact of his work rather than the theories behind it. [For more on this see Noel Kingsbury, Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding 2009).

from H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

from H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

Whether this was always seen as a good thing at the time is debatable.  William Cobbett in The English Gardener of 1833 while admitting that “this is one of those vegetables that everyone likes” lists seven varieties of garden peas and adds “there are several others, but [these] are quite enough for any garden in the world.”  You might think, like I did naively, that that’s probably true as, apart from the timing of when they crop, most pea varieties are much the same .

from Carter's 1920 catalogue

from Carter’s 1920 catalogue

Other people clearly didn’t agree with Cobbett because by 1885 the great French nurseryman  Vilmorin-Aandrieux described an almost unbelievable 170 varieties.  These had marvellous names,  ranging from those reflecting the hybridiser such as Sangsters No.1 or Laxtons Fillbasket, to those honouring the great and the good such as Leopold II or Admiral Dewey, via those that shown their origins or properties, such as Early Kent or Tall Square Mammoth.screenshot

To see all 170 of them with their descriptions see:

screenshotPart of the reason for this array of different varieties was summed up  by Arthur Sutton of the eponymous seed company in a lecture to the Linnean Society to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee  in 1897.  Talking about the  progress in vegetable cultivation during the queen’s reign, he commented that the varieties that were grown when she came to the throne “we now look upon …as chiefly suitable for boiling in a dry state.”  In other words constant  selection and hybridising was going on, with all the opportunities for improving, [and equally important commercially] for renaming and marketing.  You can read all of Sutton’s lecture at:

from Willaim Robonson's translation of Vilmorin-Andrieux The Vegetable garden

from William Robinson’s translation of Vilmorin-Andrieux The Vegetable garden

By the late 19th century seed companies were spending fortunes trying to breed new varieties of peas or buying them from independent growers and nurserymen. Their catalogues  have pages and pages devoted to peas – far more than any other crop.

H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

H.Cannell & Sons Catalogue of Perfect Seeds 1899

Carters Seeds, probably Britain’s largest brand, devoted over 800 acres to growing pea seeds for sale compared with only 70 acres for beans and 96 for cabbages. And by 1888 they  gave over 2 double spreads to their simple text listing of available pea seeds. By 1913 that had stretched to nearly 30 pages. Admittedly each page carried one or two photos but even so, the range was enormous and shows how head gardeners were able to grow peas virtually all year round.

from the 1913 catalogue

The centrespread from the 1913 catalogue

Carters Forcing Pea could be sown under glass in the winter  “when the vinery [is] doing practically nothing” and could be followed by dozens of varieties of “earliest”, “second early”, “maincrop”, “later maincrop”, and “late sorts” ending with Carters Michaelmas “which quite oversteps the boundary hitherto set by times and seasons.” All their assertions were, of course, backed by fulsome references from head gardeners of the great and good. If you want to see the full range they were selling then take a  look at:

Bigg, William Redmore; A Girl Shelling Peas; Plymouth City Council: Museum and Art Gallery;

Bigg, William Redmore; A Girl Shelling Peas; Plymouth City Council: Museum and Art Gallery;

Inevitably the popularity of peas led to growers looking for ways to preserve them, other than drying. Canning vegetables began in the late 19thc but peas, although included were not a great success as they tend to disintegrate and change colour to a sludgy drab colour, because of the heat required in the process, and the green colour has to be reintroduced with dye.

Clarence Birdseye from

Clarence Birdseye

So its unsurprising that when the man in the photo, none other than Clarence Birdseye himself, came up with his commercial freezing procedure in 1929  it was peas that probably proved his greatest hit.  Today 90% of the world’s pea are picked when immature – petit pois even more so – and go into the freezer.

Bridgeton, New Jersey. Seabrook Farm. Packing Birds Eye frozen foods. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Bridgeton, New Jersey. Seabrook Farm. Packing Birds Eye frozen foods. Prints &
Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

As a result “there are generations today who no longer know what fresh peas in the pod taste like, indeed they might not even like them. Frozen peas are processed far nearer to picking than the fresh pea can bought to the shop. Even when frozen the enzymes continue to slowly make sugar from starch, which makes frozen peas much sweeter than fresh.” [Sue Shephard, Pickled, Potted and Canned, 2000]  And I’ll leave you to contemplate peas with one final thought from Winston Churchill…”all the essentials of life are a mere four: hot baths, cold champagne, old brandy and new peas”birdseye-jpg

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3 Responses to Peas, perfect peas

  1. Pingback: Peas 101 - Yesterday's Gardener

  2. ewix says:

    What a thoughtful, informative essay. I loved it.

  3. Kenneth Adcock says:

    The most famous pea in my time, since 1935, was a pea Kelvedon Wonder. Sutton, Carter or Bees Seeds that Grow.Wonderful sweet taste when harvested early.

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