An update: Buy me some peanuts!

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about peanuts, and only partly because of the long delayed return of the baseball season. No, this spring I was trying very hard to channel one of my botanical heroes, George Washington Carver.

Sculpture in the George Washington Carver Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Sculpture by Tina Allen. Photo KPreston

Carver’s best known legacy is his work with peanuts and the 105 peanut recipes he published in a bulletin for the Tuskegee Experiment Station. Inventing over a hundred distinct recipes for one plant is a triumph of creative genius in itself, but he was much more extraordinary than that. He was born enslaved in the early 1860’s and became the first African-American student at Iowa Agricultural College. He broke more ground by joining the faculty there. Later, after being recruited to Tuskegee, he made it his life’s work to elevate lesser-known crop species that could regenerate the land and the lives that had been laid to waste by cotton. One profile of Carver emphasizes his gifts as a science communicator, bringing his discoveries to the people whose livelihoods depended on being able to put them into practice.

I wish I could say that Carver was on my mind this spring because as a teacher I needed to summon his ability to inspire people about plants. The sad truth is that I needed to reflect almost every day upon one of his more famous quotes:

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.

My tenderness, compassion, sympathy, and tolerance were definitely put to the test this spring as I taught and held meetings and tried to support my students through a computer camera. To be honest, though, a picture of that quote has been in my office for the last few years because I frequently need that reminder. I guess we all do. To judge by the conflicts Carver is said to have had with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, perhaps his sage advice was aimed as much at himself as it was meant for others. Given how far he went in life, though, we should all take his words to heart.

One of the inspiring bright spots on Twitter recently was #BlackBotanistsWeek, organized by a terrific group of scientists, mentors, and leaders. The week-long celebration brought attention to the research of many many Black botanists, most of them early in their careers (this being Twitter, after all). It also honored established scholars as well as African American botanists from the past, including George Washington Carver. A wider audience of people now know him as more than just that peanut guy.

But baseball is another a reason I’ve been thinking of peanuts. Without fans buying peanuts at the stadiums, peanut producers have really been suffering. As I wrote back in 2016, about 6 tons of peanuts are consumed by San Francisco Giants fans per game. Multiply that by 15 matchups across the league for 162 games, and that’s 14,580 tons of peanuts a year. With so many extra peanuts in storage this year, we are going to need every single one of Carver’s 105 recipes, plus some.

Here’s that original post from 2016.

As part of our legume series, the Botanist in the Kitchen goes out to the ballgame where Katherine gives you the play-by-play on peanuts, the world’s most popular underground fruit. She breaks down peanut structure and strategy, tosses in a little history, and gives you a 106th way to eat them. Mmmmm, time to make some boiled peanuts.

Baseball is back, and so are peanuts in the shell, pitchers duels, lazy fly balls, and a meandering but analytical frame of mind. Is this batter going to bunt? Is it going to rain? What makes the guy behind me think he can judge balls and strikes from all the way up here? What does the OPS stat really tell you about a hitter? Is a peanut a nut? How does it get underground? What’s up with the shell?  A warm afternoon at a baseball game is the perfect time to look at some peanuts, and I don’t care if I never get back.

Peanuts fit baseball like an old glove fits your hand. Just as players through the ages have taken more clubhouse-friendly monikers, so Arachis hypogaea has many nicknames – peanuts, goobers, goober peas, groundnuts, etc. And fans love peanuts. Legend has it that San Francisco Giants fans leave four thousand pounds – two tons – of peanut shells behind after every home game. Over a season, that adds up to more than 160 tons of shells. (Fortunately, the Giants’ AT&T Park has a massive composting program). Shells make up only about a quarter of a peanut’s total mass, so at every game, six tons of edible peanut parts are consumed by the nearly 42 thousand fans typically in attendance. By my goobermetric calculations, that translates into more than a quarter pound and 700 Kcals of goober peas per person, not including any peanuts taken in as Cracker Jack. Consider that not everyone there is eating peanuts, and you have some fans hitting the peanuts pretty hard. Of course there are fans who are seriously, even dangerously, allergic to peanuts, and many teams now offer peanut-controlled sections for a few games per season. Personally, I like my peanuts best when they are boiled in brine and served in Georgia – just one of the ways you can get them at Turner Field in Atlanta.

Boiled peanuts at Turner Field in Atlanta

Boiled peanuts at Turner Field in Atlanta. Click to enlarge.


Peanut seeds cradled in the fruit wall (shell)

Wherever your home team might be, imagine you are sitting there in the stands on a warm lazy day asking yourself “what is a peanut?” Most “nuts” are not botanical nuts, and neither are peanuts. You will have heard that peanuts are “peas,” and that’s mostly right. Arachis hypogaea is in the legume family (Fabaceae), and its botanical fruit type is also called a legume, along with green beans, snap peas, and edamame. The shell of a peanut develops from its ovary (making it a fruit), and it contains the edible peanut seeds inside, surrounded by a reddish brown papery seed coat. So peanuts in the shell are fruits, and we open them up and eat the seeds.

In fact, peanuts are among the rare fruits that develop underground, although they flower above ground. They start as beautiful aerial flowers, shaped like those of its sweet pea cousins, and strikingly bright yellow. Bees love them and occasionally spread their pollen, although the flowers typically fertilize themselves (Leuck & Hammons,1965).

Arachis hypogaea 003

Peanut flower (Wikimedia Commons)

The really weird part comes after pollination, when the flower petals fall off and the ovary (soon-to-be-shell) starts to push itself underground. It’s not the flower stalk (pedicel) that buries the fruit; rather the base of the ovary itself elongates into a structure called the “peg” (Smith, 1950). A recent study (Chen et al. 2015) found literally hundreds of genes involved at different stages in this odd developmental move. Genes that give plants a sense of gravity are important in turning the peg down into the ground. Once there, the tip of the peg uses another few hundred genes to know that it’s dark and that the ovary should start to develop into a fruit.

Peanut stalks

Peanut “pegs,” which will become peanut fruits. By Alain Busser from Wikimedia Commons

But developing underground (“subterranean fructification”) is pretty tough on a fruit, and a peanut ovary is exposed to fungi, bacteria, nematodes, and fluctuating moisture levels, so another large set of genes goes on the defense against these pathogens (Chen et al. 2015). The shells also become very tough with thick-walled cells and fibers that support the network of veins bulging at the surface of the shell (Halliburton et al. 1975).FabaceaePeanutInShell

So to recap, those peanut shells have to be tough enough to withstand intense physical challenges yet adept enough to adjust to subtle environmental cues. Sitting low in the dirt all that time has roughed up their epidermis and left them pretty well skinned. Sounds like a catcher to me.

Before you eat those edible seeds, take a closer look at them. The reddish brown papery layer surrounding a peanut seed is its seed coat. Just like other familiar bean seeds, the peanut has two distinct halves which are its cotyledons (“seed leaves”). The cotyledons store a lot of nutrients to support a developing seedling, a role that makes them dense sources of protein and fat calories. Because many legume species use symbiotic bacteria to fix nitrogen from the air, they can afford to pack their seeds full of nitrogen-rich protein.

Looking down at a peanut seed, slightly ajar. The tuft in the center is a set of new leaves that will emerge when the seedling germinates.

Looking down at a peanut seed, slightly ajar. The tuft in the center is a set of new leaves that will emerge when the seedling germinates.

Between the cotyledons is a fascinating little structure that looks like a pale feathery mustache. That tiny tuft is the first set of leaves that appears above ground when you plant a fresh peanut.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

But of course peanuts plant themselves, as described above. If you occasionally question a baseball manager’s strategy, just think about this insane move. When a flowering peanut pushes its fruits into the soil, the fruits remain tethered to the plant, and the seeds inside do not go far. They basically sit right under the parent plant, waiting for it to die, crowded by dozens and dozens of sibling seeds. Yes, it is a good spot, since those inbred seeds are genetically similar to their parents and would thrive where they did. Still, only a handful of them (at most) can occupy the family spot the following year. For a seed, that’s worse odds than a suicide squeeze. By contrast, most other plant species invest energy and cunning into dispersing their fruits and seeds as far as possible. They explode, or stick, or float, or travel through a gut. Bye bye baby. Peanuts’ odd reproductive habit is called “active geocarpy.” This strategy is rare in plants, but it seems to be associated with unstable soils, often at high altitudes, that are prone to freeze-thaw or extreme wet-dry cycles (Barker, 2005). Maybe active self-planting protects seeds from being buried too deeply or being unearthed when the ground shifts. Maybe sometimes they do roll away but stay in fair territory and colonize new ground.

Peanut seedling

My first recruit to the peanut farm team

In the US, we associate peanuts with the American South, and that’s where they are grown now. Although lots of American baseball players come from peanut country – San Francisco catcher Gerald “Buster” Posey grew up in Leesburg, not far from the famous peanut farms of Plains, GA – no major league baseball players have come from the original home of peanuts in southern Bolivia. Recent genetic work has narrowed the most likely origin of our cultivated peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) to a very small region in southern Bolivia, not far from where the borders of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina come together (Bertioli et al. 2016). Peanut cultivation in that region began very early – almost as soon as people got there – and seems to have spread quickly. The Bertioli study estimates that our cultivated peanuts arose as a hybrid between two other groundnut species over 9 thousand years ago, and there is evidence of peanut cultivation in Peru not long after that, about 7800 years ago.

These days the US grows a lot of peanuts, and now we have a major goober glut that even baseball fans can’t soak up. The latest Farm Bill and other agricultural policies encouraged farmers to produce more peanuts and less cotton. We can’t eat all those peanuts, and we can’t store them all either. But peanuts are nutritional powerhouses, so an obvious solution is to give them away, and the USDA has made a deal to ship 500 metric tons of peanuts to Haiti. The heartbreaking part, as reported by the Washington Post and NPR, is that Haitian farmers have been growing peanuts themselves as part of that country’s agricultural recovery. Sending our peanuts to Haiti could undercut their efforts. (UPDATE: Sixty-one advocacy groups have submitted a letter opposing the peanut shipment plan. You can read their arguments here.) Meanwhile, here at home, conditions continue to favor peanut production in spite of the oversupply.

Perhaps the most prominent promotor of peanut production was George Washington Carver, the long-time faculty chair of the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He saw peanuts as a crop that could replace cotton and actually start to heal some of the damage cotton had brought to both soil and souls in the South. As part of his effort, Carver  published a booklet of 105 peanut recipes, including both savory and sweet preparations, and yet he somehow failed to mention peanut brittle or boiled peanuts.

Now, if you live in the south you can easily buy canned (meh) or roadside (mmm) boiled peanuts. But if you want something really good, here’s my pitch for making your own boiled peanuts.

Boiled Peanuts

Peanuts must be raw and still in the shell. They may be dried (not roasted) or they may still be damp and soft (“green”). With dried peanuts, it speeds cooking to soak them overnight in water to soften them a bit.

For every pound of peanuts, use a half-gallon of water and about 1/2 cup of salt. Put everything in a pot and bring it to a boil. Continue to boil until the peanut seeds are soft, with no residual crunch to them. Green peanuts will take up to two hours while dried peanuts may take 10 or 12 hours. Be sure to keep the water level high enough to keep all of the shells surrounded by water. Allow the peanuts to cool in the brine and then refrigerate them and eat them within a week.

Be sure to save a few to germinate, like I did. (It’s a video. Click it!):


Barker, N. P. (2005). A review and survey of basicarpy, geocarpy, and amphicarpy in the African and Madagascan flora. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 445-462.

Bertioli, D. J., Cannon, S. B., Froenicke, L., Huang, G., Farmer, A. D., Cannon, E. K., … & Ren, L. (2016). The genome sequences of Arachis duranensis and Arachis ipaensis, the diploid ancestors of cultivated peanut. Nature genetics.

Carver, G.W. (1925) How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption. Tuskegee Institute Press, Bulletin no. 31 (revised from original 1918)

Chen X., Yang Q., Li H., Li H., Hong Y., Pan L., Chen N., Zhu F., Chi X., Zhu W., Chen M., Liu H., Yang Z., Zhang E., Wang T., Zhong N., Wang M., Liu H., Wen S., Li X., Zhou G., Li S., Wu H., Varshney R., Liang X. and Yu S. (2015) Transcriptome-wide sequencing provides insights into geocarpy in peanut (Arachis hypogaea L.). Plant Biotechnol. J., doi: 10.1111/pbi.12487

Leuck, D. B., & Hammons, R. O. (1965). Pollen-collecting activities of bees among peanut flowers. Journal of Economic Entomology, 58(5), 1028-1030.

Halliburton, B. W., Glasser, W. G., & Byrne, J. M. (1975). An anatomical study of the pericarp of Arachis hypogaea, with special emphasis on the sclereid component. Botanical Gazette, 219-223.

Smith, B. W. (1950). Arachis hypogaea. Aerial flower and subterranean fruit. American Journal of Botany, 802-815.

8 thoughts on “An update: Buy me some peanuts!

  1. Deborah Madison

    Can you tell me where you teach botany? I’d really be interested in taking a class or many with you.

    Thank you, Deborah Madison author of Vegetable Literacy and 14 other books



    1. katherineapreston Post author

      Thanks for reading, Deborah, and thanks so much for your kind words. Jeanne and I are both huge fans of your cookbooks. Your recipes are great, but I most appreciate the voice in your writing.
      I teach at Stanford in the Program in Human Biology. As such, my classes are mostly about humans and plants, so this blog is my outlet for pure botany.


      1. Jeanne L. D. Osnas

        Hi Deborah, I’m currently affiliate faculty at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I’m not formally teaching at the moment and am working diligently with Katherine on the book version of this blog. We are delighted that our work is useful for you, and we are grateful for your comments.


  2. Johanna

    Ha! I’m a huge fan of the writings of both of you! Katherine, yours is one of 3 blogs I get sent to my inbox, and this was such a moving post I ended coming to comment to say thanks again. Every post feels like an interesting thought gift from a stranger. Deborah, one of your cookbooks is one of the 3I keep in my kitchen, and as I always make notes and comments and dates when I use recipes, it’s all marked up And bookmarked with Christmas cards—so I get to see friendly faces when I thumb through.

    Thanks, again, for your effort to put interesting, truthful, important and beautiful —and often very funny— writing into the world.

    Best, Johanna Buchert Smith (also an author, incidentally, of The Story Garden, a plant propagation book.)


  3. Pingback: Pick & Mix 49 – Lawns, murders, lions, farmers, teaching and much more | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

  4. Heather Driscoll

    I’m interested in Carver’s 105 peanut recipes in the bulletin for the Tuskegee Experiment Station. Would you provide a link to that? Thanks!



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