Edible peas, including split peas, belong to the genus and species Pisum sativum. They are a green vegetable with small, round seeds that are eaten fresh or dried. Peas are a source of vitamins A and C, thiamine, folate, iron and phosphorus. Sweet peas are flowering ornamental vines that produce seedpods similar to those of edible peas, but both the flowers and seeds are poisonous. The botanical name for sweet peas is Lathyrus odoratus.
Eating peas in their fresh, green form is a relatively modern way to use them. Until the 17th century, peas were dried and stored for future use in soups, spreads and other dishes. Unlike dry beans, peas and lentils do not need a long soaking time before they can be cooked.
Split peas are round like other peas when harvested, but after they are dried, they are split in two. This makes cooking time especially fast. In the United States, their most common use is in split-pea soup. In India, they are used in numerous dishes and sometimes substituted for chickpeas.
Sweet peas are annual or perennial vines that climb by means of tendrils. The annual varieties are prized for their fragrance and color and bloom in early summer. The word "sweet" refers to their sweet scent and not to their flavor. The seeds contain a toxin that causes paralysis and convulsions when eaten in large quantities.
Peas usually eaten fresh include shelling peas, snap peas and snow peas.
Shelling peas, also known as garden peas or English peas, have thick pods that are removed before the peas are used fresh or cooked. Snow peas have thin, edible pods and tiny seeds. Snap peas are a cross between the two, with fatter pods that can be eaten fresh when young.
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