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Carolina African Runner Peanut

Arachis hypogaea v. carolina african

Caolina African Peanut close-up with rootsThe Carolina African Runner Peanut was harvested for the first time in a half a century on November 26, 2013 at the Clemson Coastal Research Station south of Charleston, South Carolina.

Brought into the New World by enslaved Africans at the end of the 17th century, the Carolina African peanut--the first peanut cultivated in North America-- was patch cultivated throughout the West Indies and the southern mainland of North American throughout the 18th century.

As the ur-peanut of the United States, every culinary preparation of the peanut was first attempted and enjoyed using the Carolina African Runner Peanut.

Like all peanuts, it is a legume. An annual, flowering herbaceous legume, the Carolina African peanut is a runner variety peanut, spreading its vines bearing opposing pinnate leaves in all directions from the stem, while scarcely growing a foot and a half high. The yellowish flowers—with their distinctive pea bonnet configuration—form in clusters above ground. Self-pollinating, the flowers wither and the stalk at the base of the ovary, pushing it into the earth. There the seeds form in crenulated pods. It should be added that the smaller pod of the Carolina African peanut is immediately conspicuous to any person with any familiarity with peanuts generally. It is roughly ½ to ¾ the size of the common Virginia peanut.

The Carolina African Peanut was the foundation variety grown in the south, introduced in the 17th century into the southeastern colonies of British America from the West of Africa. It had been introduced to West Africa from South America by the Portuguese during the 16th century. Its original culinary uses were greatly inflected by West African practices: the nuts were boiled, ground into meal for fritters, candied, mashed and decocted into a hot beverage, roasted, and pressed into oil. During the 19th century the popular taste for roasted peanuts burgeoned in the northeastern cities. North Carolina erected a peanut plantation world in the Cape Fear River region to service this demand. In the 1840s Virginia planters adopted a larger Bolivian peanut to steal the trade. Renaming it the Virginia peanut, its large size made it more visible and desirable as a street food where eye appeal was all.

Farmer Brian Ward with Carolina African Peanut bushDenser, smaller, oilier, and somewhat sweeter than the Virginia peanut, the Carolina-African peanut during the Civil War became the focus of an intensive oil extraction industry. Peanut oil was used as lubricant, culinarily in the place of olive oil, and as a base for soaps. From 1861 onward the Carolina African peanut was particularly associated with oil production. Indeed, the European soap manufacturers kept the Wilmington planters afloat during the final decades of the 19th century purchasing Carolina peanut oil for use in the manufacture of castile soap.

Nationally the Virginia peanut became the favored roasting peanut. The Carolina African peanut became the foremost oil peanut in the minds of planters and merchants. Regionally, however, the Carolina African peanut remained the favored peanut for eating. When the boll weevil wiped out the cotton seed oil industry in the south in the 1910s, and the peanut upon George Washington Carver’s recommendation took the place of cottonseed to set the oil factories working again, the Carolina peanut because of its oil quality enjoyed a brief resurgence. Despite the fact that field workers began grumbling at the variety because of its small size and additional work harvesting, it continued as a marketable variety. Since the mash left from pressing oil in the factories was converted to the recent (1895) peanut butter, persons began noticing the superior taste of Carolina-African peanut butter.

The last commercial crops of Carolina-African peanuts probably date from the late 1920s. Farmers in North Carolina still kept growing old seed stock until the 1930s when they were collected by North Carolina State University. But the vulnerability to disease, small stature, and growing marginality as an oil source rendered the ancestor of all southern peanuts obsolete.

No landrace peanut varieties, such as this one, are currently cultivated commercially in the United States. Indeed the oldest peanut strain currently grown as a crop, the Florunner, a distant descendent of the Carolina African Peanut, was introduced in 1969. The Carolina African Peanut was generally thought to have suffered extinction sometime in the 1950s, two decades after the last known commercial harvests. Its difficulty in harvesting, its long growing season, its lack of productivity compared to newly introduced Spanish and Valencia peanuts, as well as its vulnerability to certain field diseases made it unpopular with growers interested in selling on the commodity market.

By luck, the oldest of North American peanut cultivars—the Carolina African Peanut—were preserved as part of a seed library by the plant breeders of North Carolina State University. Two types of Carolina runner peanut were collected during the early period of NC State peanut breeding—Carolina Runner #4 and Carolina Runner #8. Neither variety had been registered with the USDA or survived in any other seed bank or field in the western hemisphere. Carolina Runner #4 of these two strains is the variety that manifests the classical morphology of the Carolina African Runner Peanut.

In April 2013, at the request of Dr. David Shields of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, Dr. Isleib sent seed for a grow out of both of these historic cultivars at the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston. There Dr. Brian Ward, research scientist concerned with organic agriculture, oversees the current effort to restore the Carolina African Peanut. Glenn Roberts has provided the initial support for this effort, as part of his ongoing program of repatriating historic southern ingredients to regional fields, gardens, and kitchens.

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