Is there a nicer embodiment of spring than picking a pea pod and biting into the sweet, crisp cargo within?

Spring is within bouncing distance and one of the first edible plants I think of is peas.

Is there a nicer embodiment of spring than picking a pea pod and biting immediately into the sweet, crisp cargo within?

If you haven’t planted them for early harvest, it’s not too late. There are extra-early, early, mid-season, and late types, taking seven to 10 weeks to mature.

In ancient times, people foraged for peas in the wild. Romans, however, believed fresh green peas were poisonous and had to be dried before they could be eaten. It wasn’t until the time of King Louis XIV of France that a French gardener developed a green pea hybrid known as petits pois. Fresh peas soon became the rage at the king’s court and quickly gained widespread popularity.

The humble pea has played a big part in understanding inherited traits in our genes.

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, created the science of genetics, experimenting in the 1860s on pea plants and how they reproduced. He helped write the law of genetics that recognised that some of the pea plant’s traits were dominant while others were recessive. Mendel died in obscurity, but in 1900 his work was rediscovered and his contribution to the study of genetics recognised.

Peas were among the first vegetables to be canned by the Campbell Soup Company in the 1880s. The heat of the canning process destroys the chlorophyll that gives peas their natural bright green colour, but the dull olive shade and distinct canned flavour doesn’t deter true pea afficionadoes and there’s a swathe of pie eaters who insist on the mushy pea topping.

And a pack of the frozen variety can soothe when held on a bruise or strain.

Peas come in three varieties,  Pisum savitum, which includes both garden peas (sweet pea, inedible pod) and snow peas (edible flat pod with small peas inside) and Pisum macrocarpon, snap peas (edible pod with full-size peas). They are easy to grow, but with a very limited growing season, but they don’t stay fresh long after harvest, so eat them quickly.

Easiest type to grow are mange tout and sugar snap. Look for disease-resistant varieties like Maestro. If you want to can or freeze them, choose Dakota which has a heavy and concentrated pod-setting period.

Snow peas and snap peas have edible pods. Snow peas produce flat pods you can eat raw or cooked and come in vining and dwarf versions. New varieties of dwarf snow peas like Snow Sweet have pods that stay tender longer than traditional snow peas. Edible-podded peas are great in stir-fries and other Asian dishes.

Peas and beans like a freely draining, compost-rich, slightly alkaline soil.  Don’t use manure to enrich it because manure can add too much nitrogen and that encourages peas to produce weak, sappy growth, inviting mildew and aphid attack – their two enemies.

If you’re growing from seed, soak them in water overnight and add a pinch of epsom salts. The magnesium really helps to stir seed from dormancy into active growth and they jump out of the ground.

Some other varieties to look for Melting Mammoth, which has massive pods and the old-fashioned green and cream flowers. And there’s Delta Matilda which is modern, very vigorous and has beautiful pink flowers, Dwarf Skinless  is a heritage variety with wonderful marbled leaves and there’s also  the really old-fashioned Dutch Purple Podded, one of the oldest and that has ornamental pods as well as ornamental flowers.

Peas on a vine usually produce a heavier crop than dwarf varieties, so need trellises for support, while dwarf types need little or none.

Peas are little bundles of goodness, low in saturated fat, sodium and high in fibre. They are high in sugar, but not the stuff we spoon into coffee or the high-fructose corn syrup in soft drinks.

They’re a good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, folate and thiamin (vitamin B1) and vitamin A, phosphorus, vitamin B6, protein, niacin, magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), copper, iron, zinc and potassium.

The lutein in green peas helps reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataract, they slow down the appearance of glucose in the blood and so help keep  energy levels steady.
Green peas have been found to aid energy production, nerve function and carbohydrate metabolism and provide those nutrients  important for maintaining bone health. The folic acid and vitamin B6 in them promote cardiovascular health. Being rich in antioxidants, like vitamin C, green peas can also help keep cancer at bay.

Pretty good little packages all around.