Pigeon Pea

Cajanus cajan

Herbs gallery - Pigeon Pea

Common names

  • Congo Pea
  • Gunga Pea
  • Pigeon Pea

The pigeon pea, also known as the tropical green pea, is a perennial shrub with a short lifespan, from the Fabaceae family. Its origin is probably in India, where it became domesticated thousands of years ago and can still be found today as one of the important local food crops. According to experts in the history of plants, it has been cultivated in India for at least 3000 years, before spreading to other parts of Asia.

The plant has a life cycle of five years and normally reaches a height between 2 and 4 meters. The leaves consist of three leaflets, which can have either an elliptic shape or one that resembles a lance. The leaflets have a width of about 3.5 cm, while their length varies between 2.5 and 10 cm. The upper side of the leaves is green while the lower side has a silvery-green color and is covered with long hair. The leaves have a juvenile, fresh look.

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It is a plant with strong roots, which penetrate deep into the ground. This allows more water to infiltrate the soil and helps improving the poor lands where it is usually cultivated. The thin roots of pigeon pea reach a remarkable depth of six feet. They have a taproot structure and are tetrarch.

The flowers grow on cone-shape formations at the end of branches. They are small in size, with a diameter of no more than 1.2 to 1.7 cm. Their normal color is yellow, with thin lines of a color that can be either red, dark red or brown. In some cases, the flowers develop a red line on their outer edge. The color of the seeds can fluctuate considerably, from white to black, including yellow or brown. Their shape is equally unpredictable and can be round, globular, oval or even almost square.

In its early history, the plant was exported from its native Indian range and became a staple of East African agriculture. The slaves captured there and sent to the islands of the Caribbean carried along the plant, which proved to be very well suited for the local climate. Today, pigeon pea is even considered to be a trademark of Caribbean cuisine and often associated with that area. However, it remains a popular food source in India, Asia and East Africa as well.

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Besides food, the plant can be useful in multiple other ways. They are known to enrich the soil where they are planted, mainly because of their deep root structure. This is very helpful when planted near juvenile fruit trees and can significantly boost their growth, but it is beneficial to any other plant that needs a significant amount of nitrogen in the ground. Fences can be built using the plant stems but the bush itself can act as a natural fence or wind shelter due to its low shrubby shape. Chicken and other livestock can consume the plant as fodder. However, its main use remains as a major human food source.

Traditional doctors of India and other Asian states also use this herb for its medicinal benefits. They consider it a cure for problems of the internal organs and believe it can deflate them if swollen. In traditional Asian medicine, it is also employed as a treatment for digestive disorders or even cancers.

Parts used

Peas, leaves, seeds.

Uses

The main nutritional content of the herb and the reason why it is a crucial crop and a staple food on three continents is the very high quantity of natural vegetable protein. Proteins are an essential part of human diet and especially important in poor countries where meat is scarce or expensive. There are no less than 11 grams of pure vegetal protein in every portion of cooked pigeon peas equivalent to a cup. Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies and critical to the structure of bones, muscles and virtually every human tissue or cell. As a consequence, proteins are used to repair and heal any damaged cells inside us.

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The pigeon peas are also a major source of potassium. This mineral has numerous health benefits but by far the main one is to act as a vasodilator. People who suffer from heath diseases should include pigeon peas in their daily or at least weekly meals, since the rich potassium content lowers blood pressure by expanding blood vessels and reducing their constriction. This is extremely beneficial for hypertensive people and can prevent other heart diseases.

Another critical compound found in massive levels in pigeon peas is folate. This vitamin is good for women during pregnancy. Folate is shielding the babies against problems of the neural tube. Coupled with the high protein content, the folate is an extremely effective cure against anemia and makes the plant particularly important in poor countries where it is a common problem. It only takes one cup of pigeon peas to provide more than the daily required dose of folate.

Pigeon peas have a high content of vitamin C. However, a significant part of it gets lost while the plant is cooked. To benefit from all the vitamin C and some other nutrients, it's a good idea to eat the raw peas. Studies have indicated that cooking reduces the vitamin C dose by almost a quarter! This vitamin is a powerful antioxidant and boosts the production of white cells in the blood. This strengthens the immune system and allows our body to fight better against disease, as well as providing an overall health boost.

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Pigeon peas are a good food choice for improving digestion. This is because they are rich in dietary fibers, like many other legumes and plants. Fibers have the ability to slow down digestive transit, allowing the body to be more efficient and extract more of the nutrients in the food. They regulate the bowel movements and cause a more consistent excretion, cleaning up the intestines. This cures and prevents a wide range of problems like bowel inflammation, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gastric strain.

Traditional Asian doctors have been aware for a long time that the plant has general anti-inflammatory properties. Every part of pigeon peas can be useful: the leaves, seeds as well as the fruits. Pigeon peas can be crushed and prepared into a paste, which is considered in Asian medicine to be effective against hemorrhoids. However, the plant is rich in bioactive compounds that are able to cause an overall inflammation relief in the whole body.

Pigeon pea is an excellent food choice and should be included in every balanced natural diet. This is because it is low in dangerous compounds like cholesterol and saturated fats, has a moderate caloric value, while being very rich in various nutrients. Due to the high fiber content, eating pigeon peas causes a feeling of fullness. This prevents gaining weight and boosts our metabolism, solving the most common problem of every healthy diet, which is the hunger sensation that can occur in between two meals.

Studies have actually discovered that pigeon peas become pure usable energy after a meal, instead of fat deposits. The rate of conversion is exceptional and scientists believe it to be caused by the sizeable quantity of vitamin B complex stored in the peas. The main bioactive compounds that boost the burn rate of carbohydrates are riboflavin and niacin. This provides two important benefits: it prevents weight gain and at the same time offers us more energy. This could be another reason why this herb is very popular in hot and arid climates, since it is ideal for humans who work in very demanding conditions and must use a lot of energy.

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At the same time, pigeon pea is ideal for a healthy heart. This is because of the very rare combination of dietary fiber and potassium. While dietary fiber boosts the metabolism and reduces the level of cholesterol in the blood, potassium lowers blood pressure and relieves blood vessel strain. The low content of cholesterol and other dangerous fats is yet another reason why pigeon peas are an excellent choice for people who have heart problems.

Culinary uses

Pigeon peas have an interesting taste, similar to grains, with a nutty touch. It is not commonly found in normal grocery stores but can be bought from Indian and Caribbean specialized stores, as well as large hypermarkets.

In the Caribbean, pigeon pea is a key ingredient in some very spicy dishes, where it is mixed with several grain types, most commonly rice. Indians use it to prepare daal, a curry that resembles a soup, in combination with lentils. In East African cuisine, the most popular peas dish is also similar to a soup, mixed with coconut broth and hot peppers that add a very spicy touch.

In street markets in its native range, numerous varieties of pigeon peas can be found and tasted. However, in the Western world shops, only the green, black or white types are common. Usually, the peas are only available in canned form in stores. However, peas can also sometimes be found dried or even milled like a flour.

Habitat and cultivation

The herb is very resilient and can grow on marginal lands that are unsuitable for other legumes. Not only it can be planted on poor soil but it survives without much water as well. However, providing pigeon pea with a proper amount of water and quality soil results in bigger and more productive plants, with a longer lifespan.

Being a tropical plant, it needs heat and can only be cultivated as an annual plant in areas where the soil freezes in winter. This is because it can't survive frost but it is still a good food crop choice due to good production and the ability to improve soils. However, some new varieties have been developed later that are able to resist mild frost.

Collection and harvesting

The first seeds develop and can be harvested in about three to four months after cultivation. However, this is not a given. While flowers appear, depending on the variety, they sometimes need even eight months to mature into peas, depending on the variety.

Harvesting is a matter of choice. You can pick the pigeon peas when they are green and consume them fresh or allow them to stay on the vines until dry. Harvesting is very easy since the peas are grouped in large clusters. These are very easy to pick and you can gather enough of them for a decent meal in no time.

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