Call it the Mata Hari of the garden. Like that hapless lady spy of World War I, the winged pea beguiles, is useful only in its youth and has a secret past that alludes to foreign intrigue.
The bewitching alliance of the velvety-red, pea-like flowers and bouffant gray-green foliage might distract an unwary gardener from a timely harvest. Although the young pods are easily camouflaged, they make a delicious morsel--but only for a short time. Winged peas grow quite rapidly, and once they exceed an inch in length, they become fibrous and deserve banishment from the kitchen and deportation to the compost pile.
There, if reminiscence was possible, they might recall their era of covert esteem when, according to Bruce Sangster, president of the Thompson & Morgan Seed Co., winged-pea seeds were purchased in large quantities by the police of the United Kingdom. For about 25 years after Sangster's grandfather introduced them to Thompson & Morgan, the British Department of Forensic Investigation used an extract made from their crushed seeds for tracing elements in human blood. The extract has since been replaced by synthetic chemicals, and winged-pea seeds have vanished back into relative obscurity.
An 1885 English translation of "The Vegetable Garden," the classic by Vilmorin-Andrieux, refers to the winged pea by its other common English name, the "asparagus pea." Its widespread European use is indicated by the book's list of French, Flemish, Danish, Spanish and German names. Although two of the names translate to "asparagus pea," many connoisseurs scoff at the association, which is based on a trace of asparagus flavor in the winged pea.
The winged pea, like the common podded pea, is a member of the Leguminoseae family; as such, it is capable of fixing its own nitrogen in the soil, but it is a separate genus. Occasionally, the winged pea is confused with the more tropical winged bean, which has a plant that is edible in its entirety. Only the pods of the winged pea are edible, and they must be cooked before they are consumed.
The botanical name, Tetragonolobus purpurea , accurately describes the winged bean. Tetra means four and refers to the number of the seed pod's "wings" or projections; gono is a Latin root meaning offspring, which is the seed in the capsule; lobus indicates a "lobe" or projection of the "wings" from the form, and purpureus describes the purplish or reddish blend of the flower.
Most authorities attribute the winged pea's origin to Southern Europe. Home's observation of seed from Thompson & Morgan confirms that it responds well to cool-season growing in our Mediterranean-type climate. In one coastal garden, it has reseeded itself and borne copiously for 2 1/2 years. As we went to press, however, Joe Golden, merchandising manager of Gurney Seed in Yankton, S.D., reported an apparently heat-resistant variety, with pink flowers, growing in Gurney's trial garden. The unnamed variety was grown from Gurney's own seed and flourished through consecutive August days in temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
As a trailing annual, the winged pea clambers rather than climbs, and it will smother plants as well as weeds in its path. It also possesses ornamental qualities rarely found in the vegetable garden. Trained in the manner of sweet peas, the Gurney planting made a bank of handsome foliage and covered a five-foot-high plastic net. It makes for a particularly lovely edging and softens the line of walks, walls and raised beds where the added height is particularly useful for those who have difficulty gardening.
Plant the seeds no more than half an inch deep, space them from 12 to 18 inches apart, cover them with soil and keep them moist but well-drained. Expect germination in about 10 days during the cool weather and a harvest in about 2 1/2 months.
There are no noted pests or diseases that afflict the winged pea, but a browning on the edges of the "wings" has been noted during high temperatures. It does not appear to affect flavor or tenderness, provided that waterings are regular and that the immature pods are still harvested at the one-inch size or smaller. Keep the winged peas clipped off to generate new pods, and refrigerate them in a vegetable crisper if there are not enough for a meal.
The pods have a tenacious hold on the stems; they should be cut, not pulled. If a pod's fibrous quality is in doubt, throw it out. Nothing wrecks an otherwise delicious morsel more than having to extract stringy portions in the course of a meal.
The winged pea is an enjoyable, simply flavored vegetable with a texture substantially similar to that of eggplant; small portions seem to satisfy the appetite.
A quick stir-fry in butter retains the best qualities of its solid-but-tender texture and fresh, deep-green color. Some minced onion and a touch of a mildly flavored herb such as chervil or dill can add interest; avoid garlic and reserve it for less-gentle foods. The English enjoy dipping the cooked pods into melted butter as an appetizer; also, the pods are an excellent substitute for Chinese pea pods in combinations of stir-fried Oriental vegetables.
Seed is usually stocked under the name Asparagus Pea and is sold by Thompson & Morgan, P.O. Box 100, Farmingdale, N.J. 07727; the cost is $1.60, plus 50 cents for postage. Guerney Seed and Nursery, Yankton, S.D. 57079, lists the peas in their "Fun Corner" of unusual seeds and sells them for $1.25, plus 90 cents for handling.