A closer look at five heirloom varieties rarely grown today.
Although botanically classified as a legume and belonging to the Fabaceae (bean) family, the peanut is commonly treated as a nut because it has a similar taste, texture and nutritional profile to tree nuts. The cultivation of peanuts was well established in Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrived. Archaeological evidence date pods from a wild species to at least 7600 years ago and depictions of the nuts appear in the art of the Moche people of ancient Peru. Spread by European traders to tropical and subtropical locations around the world, peanuts are now a valuable crop – 42 million tonnes of the shelled nuts were grown in 2014.
Peanuts are an annual herbaceous plant that grow 30–50cm tall. Like most legumes, peanuts harbour nitrogen-fixing and soil fertility-improving bacteria in their root nodules, making them a valuable rotation crop. Unlike peanuts bought at a store, which will have been dried before sale, freshly harvested peanut pods initially feel softer, while the nuts have a crisp, milky texture – having them at this freshest stage is only possible if you grow them yourself. Originating in Ecuador and covered in striking red and white stripes, the fastigiata pin-striped peanut requires patience to grow; from seed I found it takes pretty much all summer. That patience is rewarded when you finally dig up the plants and see the fully developed peanut pods hanging from the root, not to mention when you crack open the shells and see the jewel-like nuts inside.