Heritage vegetable review
Alaska (Earliest of All)   Alaska peas

Age: bred by Laxton's, England, around 1883
Background: originally named Earliest of All, renamed Alaska for the American market
My supplier: seed swap (Patrick in Amsterdam)
Pros: early maturing, pleasant flavour
Cons: small pods

British peas were hugely popular in the US during the latter half of the 19th century and into the early 20th, and fortunately most kept their original names, thus avoiding confusion. One that didn't was Earliest of All, a super-early pea bred by the esteemed English pea breeder Thomas Laxton. It's likely that whoever introduced it to the US market decided that a more "local" name would work better, though it isn't entirely clear whether it was a straight rename or whether Alaska was an improved selection from the original. We may never know - but in the intervening 130 years the original British variety has died out in its country of origin, while the American version continues to be popular and widespread.

 
 
 
   

Alaska is a fairly dwarf variety, reaching about 3ft in height, with the odd plant tip struggling on to about 4ft. It's not immensely vigorous, but it is robust and designed to withstand some of the chillier temperatures found early in the season. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the variety is fully frost-hardy. It isn't. A fierce frost can wipe out an entire crop, or at the very least scorch the growing tips. I wouldn't bank on it being suitable for autumn sowing as, depending on your climate and the luck of the weather, it may not manage to overwinter.

I carried out a small scale trial in the winter of 2008, sowing a tray of Alaska peas alongside other less 'hardy' varieties (Champion of England, Golden Sweet, Taiwan Sugar). The trays were kept overwinter in an unheated greenhouse, where, for many weeks, they all thrived. Then in January 2009 came a bitterly hard frost, which killed off all the trial varieties. Admittedly it was an exceptionally cold spell which also shattered flowerpots in the garden which had been surviving winter for many years ... but it was noticeable that Alaska showed no more frost resistance than any of the other peas in the trial.

The seeds are on the small side and a pale bluey-green, with a dimpled surface. Plants are slightly strung out and small-leaved, with quite fine pointy foliage and long robust tendrils. The flowers, when they arrive, are small, bright white and quite dainty with a distinctly lobed standard petal and open wing petals. Many (though not all) are borne in pairs. Once flowering gets going it is fairly prolific, bearing short plump green pods in abundance all over the plants. The supply is kept going for several weeks if picked regularly, and they are ready earlier than other varieties.

There has to be a trade-off for earliness, and with Alaska that trade-off is size. The pods, though plentiful, are rather tiny. They become very firm at maturity, but the size is significantly smaller than a maincrop variety. Consequently they only produce five or six peas per pod, though they are packed in very tight.

Texture of the raw peas is firm-ish, and remains so when cooked. Cooked peas turn a bright emerald green. Fortunately there has been less of a trade-off with the flavour, which is good ... sweet and robust, though with an underlying 'soapiness'. It isn't in the top eschelons of finest-peas-ever-tasted, but considering it was bred for earliness rather than its flavour it's not at all bad, and probably the reason it's enjoyed a lasting favour with gardeners and growers (in the US at least).

Overall the taste, texture and appearance are distinctly old-fashioned, which is not surprising given that the variety is around 130 years old. Well worth a place in the garden for a quick and tasty pea crop at the start of the season, but you would probably want to move on to something bigger and juicier for your main crop.

 

  Alaska pea flower
  Photos: flowers and fresh harvested pods
  Alaska pea pods
   
   

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Text and images © Rebsie Fairholm. All rights reserved.