It was in the fall of 1980 that Hunter Helderman (a neighbor and distant relation), gave my father, Gordon Schronce, three peanuts – three ordinary looking peanuts. Inside those shells were seven individual peanuts – seven peanuts that were not ordinary at all. Those seven peanuts had black skins instead of the more familiar red.
Daddy planted the peanuts that spring in the family garden in Iron Station, North Carolina. (He had been growing red-skinned peanuts for several years after purchasing a bushel from a local 4-H’er.) The black peanuts performed well and exhibited no particularly different traits from the red peanuts except that the plants were smaller overall. Over the years he built up his stock of black peanuts and began saving and planting only the largest peanuts with the darkest skins.
The peanuts came with no history and no promises of magic like the beans offered to Jack (and Daddy didn’t sell the family cow for them). They didn’t vine their way up to a giant’s castle or bring great riches, but they have performed magic of a sort. They have been a conversation starter, a source of pride, a teaching tool, and a delicious and nutrient-rich snack for almost three decades.
A couple years ago, I found a commercial source of black peanuts and found a little history as well. Here is part of the description from the catalog of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (P.O. Box 460, Mineral, VA 23117 Phone: 540-894-9480 www.southernexposure.com):
Carolina Black Peanut – A rare heirloom, black-skinned peanut from North Carolina. According to food historian William Woys Weaver, the black peanut may have been used as a substitute for black bambarra. Black bambarra is important in African folk medicine as an aphrodisiac. The North Carolina climate won't support black bambarra, but the black peanut grows there without difficulty. 'Carolina Black' produces sweet tasting, black-skinned peanuts that are slightly larger than 'Spanish' peanuts. Averages two peanuts per shell.
I ordered some, and they closely resembled my father’s except for a slightly lighter color and smaller number of peanuts per shell. Thanks to my father’s selection process, his peanuts frequently have three or four per shell and are a deep violet-black.
I won’t speculate on how good an aphrodisiac either black bambarra or black peanuts are, but I will vouch that they have gotten a few conversations off and running. They also serve as an educational tool when my parents visit local schools and explain how peanuts grow and how George Washington Carver helped turn what was considered a minor crop into one of America’s most important foods.
I can’t detect much of a difference in flavor between red and black peanuts, except the black ones may be a tad sweeter. Daddy likes to mix red and black together and fry them in canola oil. They make an attractive as well as tasty mix. No, that is too modest. They are about the best-looking, best-tasting peanuts I have ever put in my mouth.
Now that I live in The Peanut State, I can’t help but wonder if some agricultural entrepreneur wouldn’t try to package a similar product. Red & Black Peanuts – I can’t think of a more appropriate snack for a University of Georgia football game.
Is anyone in Georgia growing black peanuts? If you are, let me know. I’m interested in hearing your stories. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to me at 19 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Room 128, Agriculture Building, Atlanta, GA 30334.
“Arty’s Garden” is written by Arty Schronce. Arty is a a lifelong gardener and a horticulture graduate of North Carolina State University. He lives and gardens in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta. He encourages everyone to discover the pleasures of plants and gardening.
UPDATE: Since this story was first published, Gordon Schronce donated some of his black peanuts to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com) so they could help preserve them for future generations. The company increased the stock and is selling them under the name of 'Schronce's Deep Black' peanut. Sand Hill Preservation Center (1878 230th Street, Calamus, Iowa 52729; Telephone: 563-246-2299; www.sandhillpreservation.com) also offers Schronce's black peanuts. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is offering another peanut that Mr. Schronce helped preserve: 'Talbert Small Red' peanut. In the 1970s Rhonda Ward Saunders sold the Schronces a bushel of red peanuts she had grown as a 4-H project. (Mrs. Schronce was her 4-H leader.) The peanuts originally came from Rhonda's maternal Grandfather Talbert whose family had grown them for almost 100 years. Mr. Schronce started growing the peanuts after getting the start from Rhonda. 'Talbert Small Red' is pictured above in fried form along with 'Schronce's Deep Black.'