Sunday, July 28, 2013

Foraging for Beach Peas

To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me. – Sir Isaac Newton

That's a Canadian penny next to the peas. They're tiny, but perfect  looking.
Here's another example of Mother Nature using a familiar shape of plant and flower. This one – beach peas – grow (where else?) on our beaches.

I don’t usually start off with a warning but this time I will. I have found many, many sources that cite historical uses of beach peas as a food source. I have also found the seeds of beach peas (grouped in the family of garden “sweet peas”) contain a toxic amino-acid.

A mass of beach pea on the shore of a local beach in Nova Scotia. You can just see
my spouse and Henry the Bouvier in the waves (top left).
This amino acid—in large quantities—can cause a very serious disease of the nervous system known as Lathyrism. I would assume it is present in all members of the genus Lathyrus because the condition’s name is so like the plant name.

The seed is said to be perfectly safe and very nutritious in small quantities, but should not comprise more than 30% of the diet. So as another blogger wrote, if you’re marooned on a desert island watch out how much you eat.

But now on to the plant...

Beach pea in bloom. It's quite attractive.
Photo: Anita 363, Flickr ccl
If you’ve been to a beach in the northern hemisphere anywhere in the world you’ve most likely seen this. Beach pea is a perennial coastal plant that grows in the sand dunes and gravelly areas of beaches. 

The species that grows here is “var. maritimus.” There are many others that appear worldwide.

Beach pea looks very much like either vegetable peas and/or garden sweet peas except “hardier.” By that I mean tougher looking, I assume to stand up to coastal conditions. It is hardy to USDA Zone 3. That’s pretty hardy.

Bech peas can reach about 2 feet in length. The leaves are oval, arranged in pairs and terminate with a tendril. The flower is a raceme with 5-12 blue-violet flowers. 

If you’ve ever seen a sweet pea (or vegetable pea) you know what they look like. Flowers appear in July through September in Nova Scotia. 

The fruit is a typical legume, with 2 halves that split open  but remain hinged at the base. Inside you will find pea seeds arranged in a row. They are quite tiny in relation to vegetable peas. 

The seeds ripen from late July through to October. If you want to eat the peas you have to pick earlier (when they’re immature) rather than later as they toughen as they mature. If you want to grow it in your garden, you have to let the seeds fully mature.

The pea pods, both "pickable" and dried.
Beach peas are pollinated by bees and butterflies. The plants help in fixing nitrogen in the coastal soil. In Canada, beach pea can be found in British Columbia and from Manitoba to Newfoundland. 

Beach peas can be successfully grown in the garden in well drained soil and full sun. They cannot tolerate shade.

Here’s uses I found for beach pea. Remember the warning at the top of the post...

The immature peas themselves can be cooked like garden peas. The mature seeds can be sprouted and eaten. The pods can be stir-fried whole and the tendrils can be harvested as a “gourmet” treat. Pea tendrils are quite a fad right now in many gourmet food magazines. They are often tossed in with salads.

You can also eat the plants when young, either raw or cooked. The mature dried seeds can be roasted for a coffee substitute. With the price of coffee now I may be trying that one...

The Chinese used beach peas as a tonic for the urinary organs and intestinal tract. Iroquois treated rheumatism with cooked whole young plant. Of course, never try to treat yourself with wild edibles.

So if you can get past the fear of lathyrism it may be well worth a nibble the next time you go to the beach. Just for fun...

I certainly wouldn’t want to have to shell enough of these small green darlings for a meal. So poisoning my family is almost certainly not going to happen – at least not by beach peas...


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1 comment:

  1. Just discovered Beach Peas this year and like you, learned of the 30% warning ... So now on my walks I pick 'em and munch on them ... but one of my dogs watched me and has discovered how yummy they are ...