Pea (garden pea) on the left, snow pea on the right. Photo: www.healthline.com
Question: Can you explain the difference between a pea and a snow pea? And which is the better choice for a small vegetable garden?
Answer: The two peas are variants of the pea plant (Pisum sativum), an annual climber of the legume family (Fabaceae), native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. It has been cultivated since Neolithic times, that is for at least 8,000 years.
For most of those thousands of years, farmers grew peas for their dried seeds, what we would these days call shelling peas, field peas or dry peas (P. sativum arvense). The pods were allowed to ripen on the plant until they turned brown, then the ripe seeds, hard and dry, were harvested. Once the inedible shell was removed, a porridge (remember pease porridge from the nursery rhyme?) or a soup was prepared.
Dried peas were easy to store in view of the upcoming winter and became, in many cultures, a staple food for humans … and for livestock. We still consume dried peas today, of course, notably in pea soup. Shelling peas are commonly yellow, but can also be green.
The split pea, the type most often used as a soup pea in Europe and North America these days, is actually a more recent development, dating from the 19th century. In its case, once the outer seed coat is removed, the two cotyledons can be separated, thus “split peas!” It too can be yellow or green.
It was not until the 17th century, during the reign of Louis XIV, that peas designed for fresh eating, apparently first imported from Italy, began to be grown in France, where the newcomer was called “petit pois” (little pea). They’re what we’d call the garden pea today, or just pea (P. sativum sativum). The pod is harvested immature, when the seed is still small. The peas have to be shelled, that is, the pod has to be removed, because a tough, indigestible inner membrane called the parchment lines the inside of the pods.
Containing more sugar and less starch than shelling peas, the garden pea was long considered a luxury vegetable destined strictly for the tables of the elite, with a short harvest window limited to the spring months. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when good canning and freezing processes were developed, that it became a vegetable of the people and common in home gardens.
The sugar pea or edible-podded pea (P. sativum macrocarpon) results from a mutation involving two recessive genes. The indigestible parchment of this pea either forms late or not at all, so you can eat both pod and pea: no need for shelling.
It was actually introduced before the garden pea, having appeared in 16th century France during the reign of Henry IV, but never became popular. In China, though, it became the standard form of pea. It wasn’t until the 1970s that its use really caught on in Europe and North America, under the influence of oriental cuisine.
Two Types of Edible-Podded Pea
The sugar pea is divided into two main types: the snow pea and the snap pea.
The snow pea has a flat pod with very thin walls. You have to harvest it very young, when the pod is still slim and the seeds inside are still tiny. It’s called the snow pea because of this early harvest, but of course, it really isn’t ready (in fact, even isn’t even sown) while there is still snow on the ground.
The snap pea or sugar snap pea can be harvested and eaten later in its maturation, when the pod is thick and rounded and the pea inside fairly large. In fact, at harvest time, a snap pea pod looks physically very much like a garden pea pod. The difference is in how you use it, with no shelling, consuming both pod and pea. It gets the name snap pea from the snap it makes when you try to bend the pod. At this point, the seeds are well formed, but still immature and very sweet.
Both types commonly have a “string”: a fiber running along the top of the pod from base to tip. While edible, it’s annoying, especially when it gets caught between your teeth, and is usually removed (an action known as stringing) before eating. However, there are now stringless varieties available.
If You Miss the Harvest Window…
All the peas that we usually eat immature (peas, snow peas and snap peas) will still give usable dry peas, with hard seeds richer in starch than in sugar, if they’re left on the plant to ripen fully… or if you forgot to harvest them earlier in the season!
Which is the Better Choice?
Which is better choice for a small vegetable garden? You decide! All are easy to grow, as long as they are sown when the soil is still cool and nights won’t be too hot for the next two months or so. In some climates, they are spring vegetables, in others, fall or even winter ones.
Nowadays, however, most gardeners seem to opt for snow peas or snap peas simply because they’re easier to prepare. After all, they are eaten as is, pod and all—by the way, they can be eaten directly off the plant, without cooking, if that’s your choice—, while you have to shell garden peas and shelling peas, an extra step.
If I had any advice to give for small-space gardeners, it would be to grow tall varieties (up to 2 m/7 feet tall), since they produce much more in a limited space than dwarf varieties, although they will need serious staking.
Also, snap peas may be seen as just a bit easier to grow than snow peas, simply because their harvest window is longer. You really have to pick snow peas very early, when the pod is ultra-slim, otherwise it becomes leathery, while snap pea pods can be harvested at any stage from very young and slim quite thick and even a bit lumpy, giving you a two-week period during which you can pick them.