Heritage vegetable review
Gravedigger   Gravedigger pea

Age: unknown
Background: donated to the Heritage Seed Library from seeds saved by a retired farmer, who got it from the local gravedigger
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: wonderful sweet flavour, vigorous, high-yielding
Cons: none

The age and origins of the Gravedigger pea are unknown and may never be known, along with its real name (if it ever had one). It's probably safe to assume that Gravedigger wasn't its original name, but like so many other varieties it came to the Heritage Seed Library with only a sketchy history, and was named after the earliest known person who grew it. In this case a gravedigger, who passed it on to a farmer called Mr Thompson.

Whatever, my instincts tell me it probably isn't an ancient variety because it has a few modern traits. Very nice ones, as it happens.

 
 
 
   

I grew Gravedigger in 2008 on behalf of the Heritage Seed Library, as part of their Seed Guardians scheme. One of the perks of being a Seed Guardian is that you get to try varieties a year before everybody else does (in addition to your usual six choices from the catalogue). The seeds they sent me were large, cream and very wrinkled, which is usually an indication of sweetness.

Gravedigger is a mid-height pea, growing between 3 and 4 feet tall. It has the best of both worlds really - tall enough to avoid trailing its pods in the dirt, stocky enough not to need too much support (though it does need some). The leaves are a grey-green, thick and fleshy and large. They have a slight crinkle and a succulent texture. Growth is compact but very vigorous. It has a short internode length (the length of stem between each set of leaves) which makes the overall growth very thick and luxurious.

The only trouble with having such dense, lush foliage right down to ground level is that a huge number of snails took up residence in it. But they didn't do too much damage and very few pods were lost.

Flowers are borne in pairs on short, curved stems. It was quite consistent in producing twin flowers, unlike many peas which show some variability for this trait. The flowers are a bright, pure white and very pleasant to look at, appearing abundantly all over the plants.

    Gravedigger flower

I was very surprised to find that Gravedigger flowers attract bees. If you've ever looked at the workings of a pea flower, the parts the bees are interested in are all sealed up and there's really nothing to attract them, so it's unusual to see bees taking an interest in peas. (The flowers are self-fertile and don't need insect pollinators.) Whether the bees were actually getting into the flowers (which would make Gravedigger very susceptible to cross-pollination) I don't know ... I suspect not because they generally flew away in frustration after a couple of attempts. But it's possible. If desperate enough bees will bite their way through a sealed flower.

Pairs of green pods develop rapidly once the flowers have gone over, flat with a slight knobbliness. I tried eating some whole while they were still young but the flavour was a bit "green". There's no doubt Gravedigger isn't cut out to be a mangetout and it's much better to let the pods mature for shelling out. The pods soon get fibrous as they age, eventually ending up quite leathery.

Photo: Flowers are borne in pairs on dainty stems.

     

Gravedigger only produces about 6 or 7 peas per pod, and the pods, although fat, are not huge. Not in the same league as some of the tall heritage peas. But it's so generous in its yields it easily makes up for it with the quantity of pods. And the peas themselves are very large indeed. Unlike many large peas, they remain rounded and don't get squidged out of shape (at least not until they reach a very late stage). The pods become very firm and heavy when they're mature, which makes it easy to judge when they're ready to harvest.

I found that Gravedigger crops over a reasonably long season, so you can just harvest what you need for each meal and not be landed with a one-off glut. In other words, it's a good variety for gardeners.

Photo: Young pods

  Gravedigger pods
     

Of course the real badge of quality for peas is the flavour. I couldn't tell you what Gravedigger tastes like when it's cooked because frankly it would be a waste to cook anything that tastes so good raw. Straight from the pod, the peas are exquisitely sweet. Even when they reach full size they retain most of their sweetness. But there's more to a pea's flavour than sweetness ... there's a character of flavour too, which is hard to put into words. A richness and sophistication of taste rather than just a high sugar content. And Gravedigger has that in abundance. It's among the best flavoured peas I've tasted, and burstingly juicy to boot.

I recommend this variety very highly. It's healthy and easy to grow and the peas are a joy to eat. An instant favourite for me.

Photo: The pods aren't the biggest around, but they're plump and full of very large round peas with an excellent flavour.

  Gravedigger peas
     
Photo: Drying the seeds (which will be distributed to Heritage Seed Library members). They look quite diverse here but only because some are more dry than others ... when they're fully dry they're a fairly uniform wrinkled cream.   Gravedigger dried
   

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Text and images © Rebsie Fairholm. All rights reserved.