Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Growing Black Chickpeas


I met a fascinating plant on the farm this week - the black chickpea.  I'm accustomed to seeing tan chickpeas in the grocery store, but it turns out that chickpea skins come in the same variety of colors as human skins - light tan through yellow to red, dark brown and black.  Maybe it's because I am reading the Hunger Games trilogy (probably shouldn't have admitted that), but these plants sound like something that would be found in the arena - useful and dangerous at the same time.  You'll have to see if you agree with me - check it out:
Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) flower.
Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) have miniature pea flowers, with the typical pea's asymmetrical petals.  The flowers each contain a tiny, elongate ovary that will elongate into a pod with seeds once the flower is pollinated.  Each pod contains one to three seeds, many fewer than English peas.  Chickpeas, regular peas and beans are all in the same plant family - the fabulous Fabaceae, or legume family.

Green chickpea pods.
The leaves and youngest green pods of chickpeas can be eaten raw.  The enlarged but green pods can be cooked like regular peas.  The mature pods turn brown and contain dry seeds. These seeds are usually eaten cooked.  The black chick peas do not turn black until they are mature and dry, and they retain their black color even after they are cooked.  Regardless of skin color, all chick peas are the same on the inside - tan. 

Chickpea pods and leaves with acid secretion making the plant glisten.
The really strange thing about chickpeas is that their leaves and pods secrete a liquid that contains a dangerous soup of acids (Katniss would know that!).  When you brush against these plants, they feel moist.  If you have any scratches on your skin, you will notice that the secretion burns painfully.  If you go blackberry picking one day then chickpea harvesting the next, you will be uncomfortable!  I imagine if you picked them all day, you might have some skin erosion.  On large farms, chick peas are harvested by machine, so don't worry too much about fingerless chickpea harvesters.  The acid is very useful to the plant.  If you were a disease organism or an insect looking to eat a garbanzo bean plant, you would definitely change your mind when you were burned by the malic, oxalic and hydrochloric acids on the plant.

Besides deterring pests, the garbanzo bean secretion does another important job.  It works just like sweat and keeps the plant cool!  The plants secrete their sweat later in their lifespan when their seeds are mature, and presumably when the growing season is edging toward summer heat.  The sweat keeps their leaves and pods cooler than non-sweating leaves when the temperature is high.  As what happens when we sweat, the plants lose water.  They are at risk of dehydrating if there is not enough soil moisture for them to absorb.  Also, moist things tend to rot or become infected as a general rule, so the acid is necessary to protect the moist plants from rotting.

Nearly dry chickpea pod.
The acid secretion on chickpea plants is both useful and harmful to people.  It tastes good, since acids taste sour.  In fact, one of chickpea's acids is malic acid, which provides the tartness in apples.  The acid secretion can be collected by draping a thin cloth over the leaves, letting it sit all night until dew forms, then wringing out the cloth.  It can be used to make a unique lemonade-type drink.  The harmful part comes from oxalic acid.  Oxalic acid interferes with the absorption of calcium and some other minerals from food, and it can aggravate kidney stones.  Oxalic acid is also found in spinach, and that's why spinach and chickpea leaves should not be eaten every single day, though moderate consumption is harmless.. 
Black Kabuli chickpea.
Above is a black garbanzo bean (chickpea) freshly picked.

So what's the verdict?  Would chickpeas make a great Hunger Games plant?  Edible but covered in burning acid - perfect!

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