When I first grew the golden and purple snow peas in my garden for the first time, I felt shivers. Are these the same peas that Gregor Mendel grew and hand pollinated to discover the basic laws of genetics? The genes that he determined dominant or recessive for pod color among other characteristics in peas. It was like wandering into the field of Corn at the Upland Farm near Cold Spring Harbor, NY many years ago, the site of the first intentional cross pollination of corn to study heterosis in 1908 (which laid the foundation for developing hybrid corns) and also Barbara McClintock's maize studies (1942-1992) which demonstrated that genes are able to move about from one part of a chromosome to another. McClintock also studied "knobs" on chromosomes that allowed her to trace the origin of northeast flint corns to the highlands of Guatemala but that story is for another "rambling".
When Will Bonsall through his "Scatterseed Project" began to grow the peas from the USDA Seed Bank (at that time, listed as accession numbers without description), produce crops to evaluate and distribute seeds for the Seed Savers's Exchange, suddenly gardeners were reintroduced to some very exciting material. That's how I first obtained seed of Mendel's Peas. Oddly, the yellow pea came into the USDA Seed Bank via a collection of peas from India. At USDA it sat in some vault for many years. It may very well have been extinct in America and Europe, except for being obtained by USDA researchers and given an accession number. When I saw those golden pods it was a revelation.
Mendel probably learned the basics of genetics while breeding mice. But his experiments had to stop, since the monastery abbot, as the story goes, became distraught that the the monks were becoming too interested in the procreating mice. Mendel was relegated to the fields where the winter stash of soup peas for the monastery had to be grown. I can't imagine him hand pollinating the thousands of blossoms that he would have had to do to get the statistically valad data that allowed him to publish his treatise on "Experiments on Plant Hybridization" in 1866. Historians can't either and say that he had plenty of garden hands at his disposal.
Our customers always appreciated a few golden and purple pods tossed into the snow peas that they bought for stir-fry. The colors are maintained in the lightly cooked peas and make a very attractive dish. When we lightly steam up a batch of snow peas we also toss in some very sweet shelled peas which are producing at the same time. It is tedious to shell peas, especially the petite pois types that have high sugar content but they do perk up a plate of snow peas. The greens can be very sweet, the yellow "Golden" is sweet, but the purple is a Dutch Soup Pea with little sweetness. Fortunately, it is tender in it's flat young stage and can be used as a snow pea along with others that will impart the flavor and sweetness. I do try to do my Mendel thing, tearing off the flower petals to get at the male and female organs securely tucked away in the flower's keel. The flowers of peas are self pollinating unless insects chew through the keel to get at the pollen (which was an important reason that Mendel's data led so well to his conclusions). So, to get a sweeter purple type, one should transfer the pollen from a sweet snow pea. But pea flowers (and beans), in my mind, were never designed for human pollinators (or insect pollinators for that matter). I may dabble with pollination of the legumes but leave that work to others.
I've grown and marketed this blend of snow pea "colors" for several years as "Monk's Madness", a tribute to Mendel (sort of), they are Tall (that's big "T" for the dominant gene they possess). They can grow 4 feet or more and are best planted along a fence. We also grow a seed crop of Dwarf Snow Peas that are short (that's little "t" for the recessive gene).
The Dwarf Peas are early and are made of types that have white flowers or purple flowers, white smooth seed and dark mottled gray smooth seed. One can do a lot of genetics with the Dwarf blend, but it's role on the farm is to provide a crop without having to use a fence for the vines to climb. The Dwarf Snow Peas usually grow less than two feet tall and even though topple without support, grow just fine along in the field. Their young shoots and flowers are great in salads and the little flat pods are also nice as stir-fry, in salads raw or steamed.
Snap Peas are considered to be a rather new development. They're not. The modern, tender and sweet kinds developed from Sugar Snap which was bred by Calvin Lamborn at Gallatin Valley Seeds and released in 1979 represent a real improvement over the older kinds of Snap Peas which have been around for at least a century.
Sugar Snap was the result of a Lamborn's breeding work to improve shape in snow peas. He observed one pea plant that produced an abnormally thick podded walls but which had good characteristics otherwise. Attempting to transfer the good qualities of the abnormal thick podded pea to the snow pea, he crossed it with a traditional snow pea. Unexpectedly, the cross resulted in the low fiber sugar-rich pod like snow peas and the much thickened and juicy walls of the rogue pea.
The decision to stabilize the cross and increase the quantity of seed for trial and eventual release was a fortunate one for Lamborn and the company he worked as a breeder for since Sugar Snap won the coveted All American Selection Award and became one of the most planted vegetables in home gardens.
I was able to grow some of the older Snap Peas also known as Butter Peas courtesy of a seed saver in Canada who sent me seed of a few varieties.
Shelling Peas (Fresh Green Peas)
"Karina" is a popular garden pea for organic culture in England. I've read descriptions of it ( 4 ft. vines, not very sweet), but our wrinkle seeded strain produced with "Feltham First", 16-18" vines, and the small sweet peas were comparable to "Little Marvel".
"Early Onward" was an early, heavy cropper with mostly double pods and produced a large tender pea with a good sweet flavor. Vines are 18-24", to green peas, 65-70 days.
"Little Marvel" is still our favorite early pea both because of it's vigor (20-24" bushy vines that keep on going in spite of the heat) and the nice flavor of the dark green peas. Little Marvel is more productive for us than the strain of Karina and Early Onward we grew.
"Calibra" is a petite pois type which suffers the most from dry and hot conditions so should be started extra early in the spring and handled under irrigation. The information that we have about Calibra says that it grows 30" tall but ours never managed to climb more than 18 inches. Short pods with very tiny peas. I really like fresh sweet garden peas but it takes so many feet of row to produce so few peas. If Calibra was only more productive!
We grew "Lincoln" because we always grow it and appreciate the high quality green peas on bushy 24" vines. Perhaps it isn't the most productive pea that we grow, but it always yields in spite of what weather comes it's way. At 70 days, it was the latest in this year's trial.
"Markana" was a nice surprise from England. We grew it in partial shade without irrigation and it did surprisingly well in this years pea trials. The vines grew into a row of bushy entwined mass about a foot or two tall. Markana is quite ornamental because of the huge tendrils it makes. In asia, young pea plants or the tips of the pea plants with their tendrils are used in stir fries. We found that the six inch tendrils of Markana can be picked as the plant grows yielding a continuous harvest of "pea whiskers" until the plant starts to produce pods and the tendrils become tough or chewy. The young tendrils are tender enough for salads and have been used by some chefs as a novel edible garnish. The green peas (wrinkle seeded) have a nice flavor and are produced in short pods.
Dry Peas (Soup Peas)
We compared the early varieties with "Alaska", a smooth seeded pea, which produced later than the above varieties on larger plants with greater internodes than either. Alaska benefits with some support for the vigorous 24" vines and yields well.
"Piccolo Provenzale", a variety from Italy was the first of the varieties that we trialed this year to flower and produce. My notes say we picked the first pods within 50 days of planting. The medium sized deep green peas are only moderately sweet but provide a nice beginning to the pea season. Very rapid pod development just at the onset of our "heat wave". The little self-supporting plants are about a foot tall and produce pods to 3" long containing 6-8 peas.
"Feltham First", from England followed Piccolo with slightly sprawling 15" vines, 3 " pods and 6-8 peas per pod. Larger peas than Piccolo and only moderately sweet. It ripened before Alaska. Both Piccolo and Feltham might be good substitutes for Alaska but suffered from heat and drought more than Alaska did this year.
Saving Seed of Peas
Saving pea seed is simple. Allow the pods to dry until brown on the vines. For a small batch of seed, pick the pods individually and hand shell them when the pods are thoroughly dry and pop open easily. For larger batches of seed, harvest the plants by pulling them up by the roots and either hang the vines to further dry in a dry ventilated area protected from rain or lay them out on a tarp in the sun. Some pods may open on their own and shatter the seeds so you will want to be able to capture these as the vines dry. You can cut off the roots to minimize cleaning if soil is adhering to the roots or simply stuff the dry vines in a burlap sack and then get out the fiddle or your favorite drum and do a little ritualistic pea-stomping dance on it. With beans, we do an alternative bean-stomping dance. Pour everything into a big tub and you can easily separate the vine debris from the heavy seed at the bottom. A final seed cleaning is done by winnowing at a fan or compressed air blasts will do it.