Peas: origin, winter hardiness & nutritional benefits


With a passion for growing installed at an early age, I have always been happiest outdoors in nature. After training as a professional gardener and horticultural therapist, I currently run horticultural therapy and community kitchen gardens in the UK, helping others access the many physical and mental health benefits of growing vegetables, fruit and plants.

Favourite fruit: apples and pears
Favourite vegetable: asparagus

Grown for thousands of years, peas have become a staple of home growers. Find out where the humble pea comes from and its nutritional values.

Pea pods on a plant
Peas are a popular legume to grow and eat [Photo: Natallia Ustsinava/]

Although readily available to purchase when frozen, fresh peas (Pisum sativum) are harder to find. Freshly picked peas straight out of the pod are delicious and well worth growing at home if you can. Being simple to grow, you can sow peas in your garden either in spring or winter and harvest them just a few months later. Read on to discover the origins of peas, their nutritional benefits and whether they are winter hardy or not.

Peas: origin and characteristics

As a legume, peas belong to the same family as broad beans (Vicia faba) and runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus). Cultivated since early times, peas originate from parts of Asia and Europe and are used for both animal feed and human consumption. With a life span of 1 year, peas are classed as an annual and grown accordingly. There is a wide range of pea varieties to grow, from the common garden pea to mangetout and sugar snap types. 

Depending on the space available, you can choose to grow dwarf or climbing varieties, which range in height from 30cm to over 200cm. Furthermore, some beans produce extensive root systems, which can grow up to 1m deep, depending on the type of soil they are grown in. Producing one to three pairs of compound oval leaves, pea plants also produce tendrils that help them climb. Peas flowers are generally white but can also be pink or purple and precede the pea pods. Pea flowers consist of five petals and are similar in appearance to the ornamental sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) yet are unscented. Pea flowers are also generally self-pollinating, meaning the chance of cross-pollination is low but also that they tend to not attract bees or other insects. 

White flower on pea plant
Peas produce tendrils that help them climb [Photo: avoferten/]

As with other deep-rooted legumes, peas have the additional feature of being able to add or fix nitrogen back into the soil. This can be particularly beneficial when you follow a crop rotation, as any brassicas that you grow after your peas will thrive on the extra nitrogen left behind.

Tip: you can also grow peas for their tender pea shoots, which can be added to salads.

Winter hardiness

Pea plants are fairly hardy and generally prefer cooler weather. Most pea varieties are suitable for spring sowing and are rated H2, indicating that they can withstand temperatures as low as 1 to 5 °C. However, if frost is forecast, cover the young plants with a layer of fleece to protect them. There are also some smooth winter pea cultivars that are hardier and suitable for sowing directly outside in autumn. One such cultivar is ‘Douce Provence’, which you can sow in November for an early crop the following year. For an early pea harvest, you can also sow peas undercover in the autumn to plant out early in spring. 

A purple pea plant flower
Although mainly white, peas can also produce pink or purple flowers [Photo: Joel Rodrigues Vitoria/]

Benefits of peas and pea protein

Along with their sweet taste, peas have a high nutritional value and are relatively low in calories. Peas contain an array of antioxidants and vitamins including A, B, C and K and are also a good source of fibre. What sets peas apart from most other vegetables is that peas are high in plant-based protein, which is why they can be so filling and often used in vegetarian recipes. Furthermore, peas are a good natural source of calcium, magnesium and potassium. Due to their nutritional content, the benefits of peas can include helping support blood sugar levels, aid digestion and even promote cardiovascular and heart health.

Perhaps most commonly cooked from frozen, you can also eat peas fresh from the pod, which is when they are perhaps at their sweetest. However, it is said that eating peas can cause discomfort or bloating in some individuals due to their long digestion time and lectin content. 

A bag of dried peas
Although commonly eaten fresh or cooked, you can also dry peas [Photo: Joel HandmadePictures/]

Peas are easy to grow and are a fantastic way of getting children interested in growing produce at home. Learn more about planting peas and how to make a pea support in our other articles.