Pisum sativum

snow pea


Pisum sativum ssp. sativum var. macrocarpon

Ser. 1825

pronounced: PEE-sum sat-EYE-vum subspecies sat-EYE-vum variety mack-roh-KAR-pon

(Fabaceae — the pea family)

subfamily: Faboideae - the bean subfamily

common names: snow pea, mange-tout

Pisum is the Latin name for the pea; sativum is from sativus, cultivated; macrocarpon is from the Greek μακρος (macros), large and καρπος (karpos), fruit; mange-tout is French, ‘eat all’. There is much disagreement among authorities as to the correct name of this plant.

This variety of pea is eaten whole in its pod while still unripe. The name mange-tout is also applied to the sugar snap pea, var. saccharatum, its close relative.

The English word ‘pea’ has an interesting history. It seems that it first appeared in the language as pease, a singular noun with plural peasen, as found in the nursery rhyme:

       Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold,
       Pease pudding in the pot, nine days old.
       Some like it hot, some like it cold,
       Some like it in the pot, nine days old.

In the fullness of time, however, since the word sounded similar to other plurals ending in ‘s’, people began to use the word peas(e) as a plural, and a singular form was constructed by dropping the ‘s’.

The wild pea is restricted to the Mediterranean basin and the Near East.

The earliest known archaeological finds of peas date from the neolithic era of what is now Syria, Turkey and Jordan, from about 10000 BC. In Egypt, early finds date from around 4800 – 3600 BC. Further east, the finds are younger – about 2000 BC in India. Until the Middle Ages, peas were mostly used as dry seeds, the staple food that kept famine at bay. Eating them green seems to have been an innovation of early modern Europe.

The Pisum sativum flower has 5 sepals (fused), 5 petals, 10 stamens; 9 of the stamens are fused in a staminal tube, and one is free. The colour of the snow pea flower varies from purple to white, depending on the cultivar.

Snow peas and sugar snap peas, unlike field and garden peas, are notable for having pods that lack indigestible fibre in the pod walls. The green shoots can also be cut and served as a vegetable, as is done in Chinese cooking, especially stir-fried with garlic or shellfish such as crab. Snow peas have flat pods and are eaten before the peas have properly formed. The sugar snap pea is generally picked at a later stage.

As with all legumes, snow peas host beneficial bacteria, rhizobia, in their root nodules, which fix nitrogen in the soil, and are therefore a useful companion plant, especially if grown with green leafy vegetables that benefit from a high level of nitrogen in the soil.

The caterpillars of several Lepidoptera feed on the plant, including:

      • the Common Grass Blue Zizina labradus;
      • the Pea Blue Lampides boeticus;
      • the Grass Jewel Freyeria putli; and
      • the Southern Armyworm Persectania ewingii.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2012
Page last updated 14th March 2019