Few taste-related memories are connected to my childhood like the peanut. My mother enticed my brother and me to take breaks from outdoor summer play with peanut butter sandwiches, and when our father organized fishing trips, we packed peanut butter on crackers as a snack. We shelled roasted peanuts while watching The Jetsons, Lost in Space, and other favorite shows on our black-and-white television, and we competed with our cousins for a taste of grandmother’s sugar-coated peanuts at family gatherings. Although our family’s peanut history is like that of many other families, there’s one striking difference. Most of our peanuts came not from a supermarket, but from my grandmother’s garden, grown from heirloom seed passed down through her family for generations.
In 2010, my parents cleaned their chest freezer and uncovered a recycled plastic container that held my grandmother’s peanuts. Because my farm, Heart & Sole Gardens, had space to include another special crop, my parents passed the seeds to me. That spring, I prepared a row, and as I dropped the seeds into rich soil, I couldn’t resist popping one into my mouth. The sweet flavor was pure childhood memory. When we harvested a bumper crop from those seeds, it was like restoring a special person to my life.
The modern peanut, Arachis hypogaea, boasts a rich history. South Americans decorated pottery with peanut images as long as 3,500 years ago, and Incans entombed peanuts with mummies as gifts for the afterlife.
Before the Civil War, the peanut had various common names, including ground nut, goober, goober pea, pindar, ground pea, and probably other monikers lost to antiquity. “Goober” remains a popular label among gardeners where I live in western North Carolina. According to Christof den Biggelaar, professor of sustainable development at Appalachian State University, “Peanuts’ origins are in South America, and, in all likelihood, they were brought to Africa by Portuguese and Spanish traders. The name “goober” is most likely a mutation of the Kikongo word, nguba. The Portuguese did bring quite a few slaves from the Congo area to Brazil and places in the Americas, so they probably brought the name with them then.”
Widely regarded as difficult to cultivate and harvest, peanuts were not commercially grown in the United States until the early 1800s, at which point farmers in southern states grew them for livestock feed, oil, and as a substitute for expensive cocoa. At that time, human consumption of peanuts was limited to the poor. It wasn’t until the Civil War — when soldiers on both sides found peanuts to be a good source of protein that was easy to carry, delicious to eat, and had a long shelf life — that the lowly legume gained widespread popularity.
After a boll weevil attack threatened U.S. cotton production in the early 1900s, famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver published How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, a 1916 document that encouraged failing cotton farmers to grow peanuts as a cash crop. Although Carver did develop numerous recipes for peanuts, he didn’t invent peanut butter. Peanut butter was first advertised in the late 1800s as a protein source for vegetarians, a substitute for cow’s milk butter, and an alternative shortening or thickening agent for gravies and sauces. After being featured at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, peanut butter quickly became a pantry staple. Peanut oil, which has a high smoke point and doesn’t readily absorb food flavor, came to be the preferred frying oil for many restaurants as well.
Also in the early 1900s, peanut production drastically increased because of the introduction of new machinery that could plant, cultivate, and harvest peanuts and could separate the legumes from the plant itself. Today, the U.S. is the third largest producer of peanuts worldwide and exports more than 200,000 metric tons annually.
Peanuts to the Rescue
It’s interesting to note that peanuts, and particularly peanut oil, have been important commodities during crises. When Civil War blockades limited access to whale oil, peanut oil served as a substitute for lubricating heavy machinery. Housewives also used it for lamp fuel and as an alternative to lard. Peanut beverages filled the void created by coffee shortages, and peanuts and peanut butter were packed into rations for soldiers during both world wars. During the Great Depression, peanuts were a popular meat substitute in cooking.
Aside from culinary and industrial uses, the peanut plant is intriguing to grow and is desirable for both commercial and backyard growers. Although its name implies otherwise, the peanut isn’t actually a nut, it’s a legume in the same family as peas and beans. Peanut plants, like other legumes, fix atmospheric nitrogen.
Peanuts grow best in loose, sandy soil that’s been amended with rich compost and a good dose of calcium. At Heart & Sole Gardens, we use a hiller tractor implement to mound rows, which provides loose soil and plenty of room for the developing legumes. I drop each seed about 12 inches apart on top of the rows, and then cover them with about an inch of soil. I scatter crushed eggshells on either side of the seeds for added calcium. As the plants mature, their blossoms drop, and the shoots (known as “pegs”) form in place of the blossoms. The pegs grow down into the soil, where they develop into peanut pods that hold two to four seeds each. A long-season crop, peanuts typically require a minimum of 120 frost-free days to mature. When it’s time to harvest, the leaves turn yellow and start to wilt.
In northern climates, start peanuts indoors in biodegradable pots, and then transplant them after all danger of frost has passed. Another option is to grow peanuts in containers. Choose a pot that holds at least 15 gallons and has drainage holes. Fill a quarter of the pot with stones, brick chips, or other material to encourage good drainage. Add loose, sandy soil that’s amended with a bit of compost and calcium. Plant peanut seeds, no more than two plants per large container, about 2 inches deep. When the plants are about 4 inches tall, add loose soil and eggshells around the perimeter.
Types of Peanuts
The National Peanut Board notes four peanut types commercially produced in the U.S.:
Valencia peanuts produce three or more sweet kernels per shell and are commonly used for all-natural peanut butter and boiled peanuts. They’re grown primarily in New Mexico, but because they can mature in as few as 90 days, some Canadian peanut farmers have had success with this variety.
Spanish peanuts account for 4 percent of U.S. production, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma, and boast a high oil content. This high oil content is why Spanish peanuts have a reputation for having the “nuttiest” flavor when roasted. Red skins encase the legumes, which are typically used for peanut butter, roasted and salted peanuts, and candies.
Virginia peanuts produce the largest kernels of any U.S. peanut crop and account for approximately 15 percent of annual total yield. Grown primarily in Texas, Virginia, and the Carolinas, these large legumes are blended into peanut butter or sold as snack foods, both shelled and unshelled. These are typically the peanuts you find sold at ballpark concession stands.
Runner peanuts account for the majority of U.S. peanut production, at about 80 percent, and are the primary ingredient in most commercially produced peanut butters. They’re farmed primarily in Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Florida.
Pests and Diseases
Given the right balance of nature and nurture, peanuts produce an abundant crop of legumes. However, if plants receive too much or too little water, are crowded, or are planted in the same bed year after year, then they’re likely to suffer. The most common culprits and the methods to combat them are listed below.
Armyworms. Most abundant east of the Rocky Mountains, armyworms turn plants into skeletons. Parasitic predator insects — such as beetles, wasps, and flies — help control armyworms. Try to eliminate grassy borders near peanuts, and separate grass crops, such as corn and wheat, as much as possible.
Sclerotinia blight. Sclerotinia blight causes peanut limbs and stems to wilt, become shredded, and die. Cool, wet weather favors sclerotinia, so the disease may slow when temperatures rise and the soil dries. Crop rotation is an effective means for limiting its spread, as is planting winter cover crops to control weeds that host the fungus.
Early and late leaf spot. Probably the most common and devastating peanut foliar diseases are early and late leaf spot. Relatively high humidity, mild temperatures, and rainy weather contribute to a rise in this fungal disease. Crop rotation is the primary defense against early and late leaf spot, and certain organic fungicides may help prevent or control it.
‘Carolina African Runner’
No modern agricultural story intrigues me more than that of the ‘Carolina African Runner’ peanut. According to numerous sources, the ‘Carolina African Runner’ was the “it” peanut during Colonial times, prized for its flavor and high oil content. However, after Virginia growers introduced a larger legume, food trade shifted to the Virginia peanut, and the runner was reserved for use as oil for soap, mechanical lubricant, and as a substitute for more expensive olive oil, shortening, and whale oil. By the 1930s, the ‘Carolina African Runner’ peanut fell from favor and disappeared from the commercial market altogether.
Widely believed to be extinct, ‘Carolina African Runner’ seeds labeled as “Carolina No. 4” languished in a North Carolina State Univerity seed library drawer until University of South Carolina food historian Dr. David Shields (author of Southern Provisions), inquired if a runner was in the University’s collection. Entrusted with 20 of the 40 remaining seeds, Shields asked Brian Ward, a Clemson University horticulturist, to grow the seeds. When 12 seeds germinated in 2013, Shields and Ward relied on museum and library photographs to identify the plants as ‘Carolina African Runner.’ Reviving an almost extinct plant is a big deal, and the cultivar was even awarded a spot in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.
With all the ‘Carolina African Runner’ publicity, I wonder about the peanut seeds I grow, which look very similar. Fortunately, Dr. David Bertioli, an International Peanut Genome Initiative plant geneticist who is working at the University of Georgia, graciously agreed to grow out my grandmother’s seeds along with a ‘Carolina African Runner’ sample and a ‘Tennessee Red Valencia’ cultivar so we can compare the peanuts and hopefully make a positive identification. Regardless of cultivar name, rarity, or history, Granny’s goobers are heirloom treasures, and I vow to do all in my power to perpetuate their life cycles, both for my generation and for those to come.
Cindy Barlowe owns and farms Heart & Sole Gardens in western North Carolina. She blogs about gardening — including the ongoing identification of her grandmother’s heirloom peanuts — at Heart and Sole Food.