Snap peas are a fairly modern vegetable. While peas have been around for a long, long time - some peas found in a cave in Myanmar were carbon-dated to almost 10,000 years old - it wasn't until the 1600's that varieties began to be developed that were tender and non-fibrous enough to eat the pods as well as the peas.
Even eating peas fresh in season instead of dried like beans and cooked to porridge year round was a new idea at the time. In France at the end of the 17th century there was a wild mania for eating fresh peas. Madame de Maintenon wrote about peas in a letter in 1696:
"Impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the anticipation of eating them again are the three subjects I have heard very thoroughly dealt with... Some women, having supped and supped well at the King's table, have peas waiting for them in their rooms before going to bed."
Snow peas date from about the same time. We think of them as being particularly a Chinese vegetable, but in fact they were developed in Holland, home of so many vegetables. The Chinese name reflects this history, Ho Lan Dow, literally Holland Pea.
Snap peas are more recent still. Most people think (if they think anything) that they were developed in the 1970's! This is not strictly correct.
Sugar Snap peas (the specific variety) were found in 1970 by Calvin Lamborn, a vegetable breeder with Rogers/Syngenta. He discovered a plant growing in one of his trial fields which became the original Sugar Snap pea. It was a cross between a snow pea and an experimental shelling pea, having the best qualities of both types: a fiberless shell and tasty, non-starchy peas. Not only could you eat the whole thing, they are also remarkably sweet. I remember when they first came out; they really were a sensation in the vegetable world. As far as most people knew they were a brand-new thing, and the fact that they were taken up by well-known food writers (themselves a fairly new phenomenon) helped spread their popularity.
However, for some time prior to Lamborn's discovery, the Amish were quietly growing what is now known as Amish Snap peas. Nobody is quite clear for how long, but the seeds are now making the rounds amongst heirloom seed sellers. In fact, these are likely a surviving strain of snap peas known as sickle peas, or butter peas, or butter sugar peas, all of which date back to that 17th century burst of European pea exuberance, and which were more or less popular through the 19th century, until they finally disappeared from general commerce sometime in the 1950’s.
We decided to try growing them this year, meaning the Amish Snap*.
They are a sickle or scimitar shaped pea, of light medium green growing on tall 5' to 8' vines. They should start producing in a little over 60 days then continue for about 6 weeks, unless cut short by heat and drought. They are quite tolerant to sitting on the vine, by which I mean that you probably have about 3 days to pick them, unlike snow peas which must be picked daily OR ELSE. Even fairly large ones have been completely tender.
They are delicious raw, eaten in the garden, but are also excellent lightly stir-fried or steamed. They are remarkably crunchy, juicy and sweet. I really like these as a cook because they are so much less work and waste than shelling peas, and have so much more substance than snow peas.
Popular opinion is divided as to whether Sugar Snap or Amish Snap are the best snap pea, but there seems to be a wide consensus that other varieties such as Super Sugar Snap, Sugar Ann, Sugar Daddy, Cascadia, etc, etc may be shorter more manageable plants, or have more disease resistance, but they trail these two by a large margin when it comes to flavour. Of course the varieties that are easier for growers to manage are what you will be able to buy in stores. To get the best snap peas you must grow them yourself.
We also grew a second variety of snap peas this year. This one is called Spring Blush, and it’s a very recent piece of vegetable breeding. It comes from Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds.
As you can see in the picture, these snap peas are overlaid with a pink blush, hence the name. They are rather sparse-leaved plants but they have extravagant quantities of tendrils. They grow even taller than the Amish Snap it seems, although it’s a little hard to tell because the Amish Snap are growing in our dry, sandy bed and the Spring Blush are growing in the wet clay bed. I got these from Annapolis Seeds, who said they would grow to 4 feet. Ours are at 7 feet and not stopping yet.
We aren’t as impressed by these as we are by the Amish Snap. They were very tasty and if we had not eaten the Amish Snaps first, we would have been more enthusiastic about them. But there’s no question the Amish Snap peas are the better of the two. Also, that pretty pink blush fades immediately when cooked, which is sad.
However, I’d grow these again if I wanted something that was both ornamental and edible. These have very pretty purplish flowers, where the Amish Snap flowers are white.
That’s them in the photo above. Yes, I can hold the camera straight. It’s the supports that are crooked.
I have to say the peas in general have absolutely loved the “wet” bed we planted them in this year. I was afraid it might be TOO wet but obviously not. Those short peas in front of them, by the way, are Tom Thumb which are supposed to grow to only 1 foot tall, but are working on hitting 3 feet. It may just be that the rich clay soil and ample moisture are making all the peas much taller than they would be normally.
*We tried growing Sugar Snap last year, but our seed was bad and the results looked more like Mixed Floor Sweepings, so no comment on them other than what I’ve heard from other people.