Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Pigeon peas resemble soybeans

By Heidi Bornhorst
Special to The Advertiser

Dear Heidi: While growing up on Kauai, we grew a bean on a bush or small tree that was like a soybean. We called it pigeon pea; our Puerto Rican neighbor called it "gandoudi" bean. I remember they were ono and easy to grow. Have you heard of this plants? Mahalo, Nina Cabral, Kalaheo

Dear Mrs. Cabral: Yes, I have heard of this plant, otherwise known as gandule bean or pigeon pea, and have even grown and eaten it.

It was on your island of Kauai that I first learned about it. Nick Vera Cruz worked as a great gardener, student trainer and section head at the National Tropical Botanical garden in Lawai, Kauai, when I was an apprentice gardener there. We were interested in growing our own healthy (and cheap) food, and Nick shared this plant with us.

The beans look, and are used, something like soybeans, but they grow on a taller plant, which makes picking easier. The plants live a lot longer than soybeans.

I don’t know why we don’t grow this great and nutritious plant more in Hawaii.

I saw some canned ones in the store the other day; I had to buy and try them soon.

Pigeon peas, or gandule, are easy to grow and look good in the garden. They are usually about 4 to 5 feet tall and rounded (they can grow to 10 feet or more, but these, of course, are harder to pick). The leaves are slender and pointed at the tip. The flowers look something like those of the pea plant, or like maunaloa blossoms, and are yellow with red highlights.

After the pods form, you can pick them green and boil or steam them, and then pop the seeds out of the pod just like you do with soybeans. This is an ono and easy (and unusual) pupu. Some people extract them from the pods and add them to other dishes. If you let them fully mature, the pods and the beans turn brown. These must be rehydrated to eat, just like any legume, pea or bean that you cook in dried form.

You can also grow new plants from the fully ripe, brown seeds. You can grow a bunch of them as a hedge or windbreak, or as a single plant.

Pigeon peas are in the bean and pea family, Fabaceae. The scientific name is kind of cool and easy to remember: Cajanus cajan. The Malay name for this pea or bean is "kacang," which was Latinized to Cajanus by the botanist who named the genus.

Hawaiians called them pi nunu ("pigeon pea"). Dr. William Hillebrand, the first haole planter of Foster Garden, noted that they were brought in early on. (He was in Hawaii from 1851 to 1871.) They are probably native to Africa but have been cultivated by people for so long that their true country of origin is a bit obscure because of the passing of time and the habit of people to carry their favorite food plants around the world.

Like many legumes, or bean family relatives, these plants work to enrich the soil. When the plant dies or becomes less vigorous and productive, you can cut it down and use it for mulch. The leaves, branches and roots are rich in nitrogen, which can be returned to the soil and then used by other plants.

The plant has been used to enrich the land in Hawaii. It does well in dry places and, during WWII, seeds were scattered in dryland areas of Hawaii. They also make good animal feed.

Heidi Bornhorst is director of the city’s botanical gardens - Foster, Liliuokalani, Wahiawa, Koko Crater, Hoomaluhia. Write to her care of The Advertiser Homestyle section, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Or e-mail her at

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