Whether deciding which legume to plant in your vegetable garden or which pea to throw in your stir-fry, it's useful to know the difference between a snow pea and a snap pea. While both types of peas are categorised as edible pods, there are a few key differences.
The Three Types of Peas
There are three types of cultivated peas. Garden peas are also known as English peas, standard peas or shelling peas. They do not have edible pods. Garden peas are the starchy legumes that must be shelled and cooked before being eaten. The remaining two types of peas have edible pods. Snow peas and snap peas can be cooked, but unlike garden peas can also be eaten whole right off the plant.
Snow peas are also called Chinese peas and sugar peas, which is one reason they are often confused with sugar snap peas. However, snow peas are quite different. The pods are flat, wide, and flexible. It bends easily, rather than "snapping" like a snap pea. The peas themselves are very small, and appear as tiny bumps that can be seen through the thin skin of the pod if you hold it up to the light. Snow peas are eaten pod and all, and are good both raw and cooked. They are often used in Chinese stir-fry dishes.
Although there have been different varieties of snap peas in the past, the kind eaten today are a cross between garden peas and snow peas. Developed by plant scientist Calvin Lamborn in the 1970s, the first Sugar Snap was released in 1979. Like the snow pea, a snap pea can be eaten in its entirety, and is tasty whether cooked or fresh. The snap pea, however, has a much different appearance. It is similar to a traditional garden pea pod shape, rounded like a little fat canoe. The peas are large and sweet, and can be shelled and consumed like garden peas.
All peas are types of Pisum sativum, and are cultivated mostly the same way. However, there are a few differences worth acknowledging. Snow peas are available in both climbing and low-growing varieties. Low-growing (also called "dwarf") snow peas are bushy and don't require support of any kind. Snap peas, on the other hand, all require a fence or trellis to climb. Another good consideration when making pea plant decisions is the climate of your area. Snow peas adapt better to higher temperatures than the other pea types. The last major difference between the peas is when to harvest them. Snow peas are picked before the peas have matured and the pods are still flat. If left too long on the vine, the seeds will grow to garden-pea size. While they can still be consumed this way, the pods must be discarded and the peas are quite starchy.
Some of the more popular snow pea varieties include the Mammoth Melting Sugar, Dwarf Grey Sugar and Oregon Sugar Pod. The Mammoth Melting Sugar is a long-producing, very sweet snow pea. Both the Dwarf Grey Sugar and the Oregon Sugar Pod are low-growing varieties that don't need staking.
A few of the snap pea favourites are Sugar Daddy, Sugar Snap and Sugar Ann. The Sugar Daddy grows two pods per node, so has a very high yield. Also, the peas grow at the top of the plant so they're easy to pick. The Sugar Snap is the original snap pea cultivated by Calvin Lamborn, and remains popular for its sweet crunchiness. It is a very tall plant; however, and requires a lot of support. The Sugar Ann grows to only two feet and has very sweet, large pods.