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Definition: cowpea from The Columbia Encyclopedia

black-eyed pea, or black-eyed bean, annual legume (Vigna sinensis) of the pulse family. Introduced in the early 18th cent. from the Old World to the S United States, it has become a staple of Southern cooking and an important catch crop, soil enhancer, and forage. Cowpea, sometimes called China bean, is grown commercially in India and China and as a high-protein subsistence crop in Africa. Cowpea is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Rosales, family Leguminosae.


Summary Article: Cowpea from Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia

An annual legume of the Fabaceae or Leguminosae family, the cowpea is known as the field pea, southern pea, black-eyed pea, and black-eyed bean. The Greeks knew the cowpea as phaselos, from which must derive Phaseolus, a genus of beans. Others know the cowpea as phaseolus. The Spanish referred to the cowpea as caups. Its classification is uncertain. One writer declares the cowpea to be a bean. Another categorizes it as neither a bean nor a pea. Despite its name, the cowpea is more closely related to beans. Cowpea is also related to pea, soybean, alfalfa, clover, vetch, peanut, chickpea, and lupine. Scientists know the cowpea as Vigna unguiculata. Half a cup of cowpea contains 286 calories, 9.2 grams of water, 20 grams of protein, 50 grams of carbohydrate, 9 grams of fiber, 1.7 grams of fat, no cholesterol, 71 milligrams of calcium, 8.3 milligrams of iron, 278 milligrams of magnesium, 366 milligrams of phosphorus, 1,148 milligrams of potassium, 48 milligrams of sodium, 5.1 milligrams of zinc, 1.3 milligrams of vitamin C, 0.6 milligram of thiamine, 0.1 milligram of riboflavin, 2.3 milligrams of niacin, 1.3 milligrams of pantothenic acid, 0.3 milligram of vitamin B6, 534 micrograms of folic acid, and 28 international units of beta-carotene.

Origin and Diffusion

The cowpea's origin is open to debate. It may have originated in Asia, but Africa is more probable. Those who support Africa as the ancestral homeland of thecowpea favor West Africa, central Africa, or Ethiopia. About 1200 BCE, the people of Chad began cultivating the cowpea, perhaps intercropping it with millet, a practice that continues today. The Yoruba of Africa offered cowpeas to the gods in return for their protection. The god Obatala, they believed, ate cowpeas with yams, rice flour, and cornmeal. Because corn was unknown in Africa before the 16th century, this belief must be relatively recent. Yamaya, the mother of the gods, ate cowpeas, watermelon, and fried pork. The god Oxun combined cowpeas with shrimp and palm oil. The cowpea was important enough to enter the lexicon of the Yoruba. Their saying, “you do not know what cowpeas are like for dinner,” meant that a person was not mindful of the consequences of his actions. Nigerians wrapped cowpeas in banana leaves and ate them with smoked fish, eggs, canned beef, and vegetables.

The Greeks, Romans, and Indians fed cowpeas to livestock. First-century BCE Roman poet Virgil gave instructions on the cultivation of cowpeas. Galen, the second-century CE physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, recommended a dish of cowpeas and fish sauce. The Spartans ate cowpeas with figs and beans as dessert. Medieval Europeans had recipes for cowpeas. African slaves, perhaps in the 16th century, brought cowpeas to the Caribbean and North and South America. Another account credits the Spanish with introducing the cowpea to the Caribbean. Ship captains used cowpeas as a provision because slaves would not eat European foods. In the American South, cowpeas became a staple of African Americans. Despite its association with blacks, the cowpea did not have a stigma. African American cooks prepared cowpeas for their white masters. In this way the cowpea crossed racial barriers. Farmers in North Carolina first grew cowpeas in 1714, and they spread thereafter throughout the South. In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson cultivated the cowpea among the many plants in his garden. In 1824 Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia House-Wife, urged cooks to add cowpeas to their cuisine. One recipe advised the housewife to boil cowpeas until tender and then fry them. Hoppin John was a popular southern dish that used cowpeas. As blacks migrated north during and after World War I and World War II, they brought cowpeas with them. Cowpea dishes were ideal for family gatherings and church socials. Poor African Americans ate cowpeas every day, though affluent blacks ate them less often. Some African Americans were eager to distance themselves from the cowpea. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad rejected cowpeas because of their association with a “slave diet.” More recently, some African Americans have embraced cowpeas as authentically black fare. The cowpea has become part of popular culture. The Dixie Chicks recorded a song in which a woman killed her abusive husband by feeding him poisoned cowpeas. One group of musicians named themselves the Black Eyed Peas.

Current Status

Today, Africa produces the majority of the world's cowpeas. Nigeria alone accounts for more than half of all cowpeas. Other leading producers are Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Myanmar. California and Texas produce virtually all U.S. cowpeas. Once grown in the southeastern United States, cowpeas have ceded ground to soybeans, clover, and other legumes. The cowpea's low yield compared to other crops makes it unattractive to commercial growers.

Intolerant of frost, the cowpea grows well in warm, humid conditions, though it has been cultivated as far north as Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey. Tolerating a range of soils, the cowpea grows in clay and sand. The cowpea may be grown in soil with little organic matter and as much as 85 percent sand. Farmers prize the cowpea for its drought tolerance and ability to yield well in infertile soil. In the South, farmers plant cowpeas on soil that is too poor for soybeans. Tolerant of acidic soil, the cowpea does not grow in saline or alkaline soil. A soil that is too fertile causes the cowpea to grow vegetatively rather than to produce seeds. An indeterminate plant, the cowpea grows vegetatively and produces flowers throughout its life. Bearing white or purple flowers the cowpea, like beans and peas, is a self-pollinator. Pods are yellow, brown, or purple.

Farmers may choose among more than 50 cultivars. Oklahoma farmers, for example, favor Chinese Red, an early-maturing dwarf variety. Because the cowpea tolerates shade, it may be intercropped with several plants. Throughout the South, farmers intercrop cowpeas with corn and sorghum. In Florida, farmers grow cowpeas for forage. A rotation with corn, cotton, and cowpeas is popular in the South. Elsewhere farmers rotate cowpeas with oats or wheat. Because the cowpea, like other legumes, fixes nitrogen in the soil, it benefits other crops. The Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station has demonstrated that oats and cotton yield better when they follow cowpeas rather than corn.

Cowpeas may be planted in spring after the danger of frost has passed. The farmer may sow cowpeas and corn at the same time. In Virginia, farmers may plant cowpeas in May or early June. In California, cowpeas may be sown between May 1 and June 15. Although spring planting is common, cowpeas may be sown as late as August 1 in the South. In the United States, farmers plant cowpeas with a grain drill or corn planter. One authority recommends that farmers plant cowpeas at a rate of 20 to 45 pounds of seed per acre. Cowpeas may be grown for hay or seed. When pods yellow but before they fill, the farmer may harvest cowpeas for hay. In the United States, the yield of hay averages between one and two tons per acre. When one-half to two-thirds of pods have filled, the farmers may harvest cowpeas for their seeds. The commercial grower may use a combine to harvest cowpeas. In addition to its culture with corn, cotton, sorghum, and millet, cowpeas may be grown with Sudan grass or Johnson grass. Because the cowpea is 25 percent protein, it is suitable for feeding livestock, though the cost of producing cowpeas makes them less attractive as feed than corn or soybean meal.

Diseases and Pests

The fungus Fusarium oxysporum var. tracheiphilum causes Fusarium wilt, a disease of several crops. The fungus causes leaves to yellow and fall from the plant. The stem yellows, though the inside turns brown or black. Defoliating a plant, Fusarium wilt kills it. The disease strikes in midsummer. Resistant varieties offer the best protection against the disease. Nematodes of the genus Meloidogne cause cowpea root knot by producing galls on roots. Infected roots turn brown and decay, impairing the ability of cowpea plants to derive nutrients from the soil. The farmer may plant resistant varieties. Also effective is a four- or five-year rotation with winter grains, corn, sorghum, velvet beans, and soybeans. The farmer may also treat cowpea seeds and soil with fungicide.

The cowpea weevil, Callosobruchus maculates, and southern cowpea weevil, Mylobris quadrimaculatus, lay their eggs on and in pods and on cowpeas in storage. Larvae bore into seeds, where they feed. The farmer may use an insecticide. Fumigation or heat treatment of seeds is also effective. The cowpea curculio, Chalcodermus aeneus, also infests seeds. An insecticide may be effective. Other pests include the lygus bug, corn earworm, lima bean pod borer, mites, cowpea aphid, bean thrips, yellow-striped and beet armyworm, and nematodes.

Further Reading
  • Albala, Ken. Beans: A History. Berg Oxford, 2007.
  • Martin, John H.; Richard P. Waldren; David L. Stamp. Principles of Field Crop Production. Pearson-Prentice Hall Upper Saddle River NJ, 2006.
  • Christopher Cumo
    Copyright 2013 by Christopher Cumo

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