If you love peanuts or peanut butter, you’re not alone. Peanuts are healthy and delicious, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that peanuts are man-made. They are essentially a hybrid of other foods, even though they’ve been around for a very long time.
Peanuts got their start in South America, where two species of nuts were crossbred to produce what we now call the peanut.
The Origins of the Peanut
The oldest known peanut pods discovered by archaeologists are said to be about 7,600 years old, so we can safely assume that peanuts are older than that.
Around the area now known as Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, there were two wild species of peanut, which are thought to be A. duranensis and A. ipaensis. These two species were crossbred and resulted in the original and first peanut, known as A. hypogaea.
It is thought that the first hybrid was probably sterile, but after spontaneous chromosome doubling, its fertility was restored. While this hybrid had relatives that grew in the wild, the first hybrid is quite different than they are.
Check out this quick history of peanuts.
These domesticated peanut plants are more compact, much bushier, and have both larger seeds and a completely different pod structure. The cultivation of these peanuts eventually spread into other areas and then into six botanical varieties and two subspecies.
The two subspecies are A. h. Fastigiata, which have short crop cycles and grow upright; and A. h. Hypogaea, which have longer crop cycles and grow by spreading out on the ground.
After the peanut became more established, European traders helped it spread worldwide, and now peanuts grow just about everywhere, including in tropical and subtropical regions.
The peanut replaced a crop plant known as the Bambara groundnut in the area of West Africa during this timeframe.
Today in the English-speaking world, peanut growing is more important in the United States than in other countries.
For much of the colonial period, peanuts were considered a garden crop, eventually switching to animal feedstock until around the 1930s, when human consumption started becoming more popular.
In the 1880s and 1890s, peanut butter was developed, originating in Canada and the U.S. Today, peanuts and peanut butter are consumed in large quantities in practically every part of the planet.
How Peanuts Were Created
Peanuts were a hybrid of two plants that grew in the wild, and it all started in South America. We really don’t know exactly how long ago this happened, but we do know around 3,500 years ago, there were pottery pieces and jars shaped like peanuts, which tells us they’ve been around for a long time. At around 1,500 BC, the Incas of Peru included peanuts with their mummies to aid them in their journeys to the next life.
In North America, peanuts came on the scene in the 1700s when they were brought there by African travelers.
The peanut (Arachis hypogaea) as we know it today is part of the legume crop, and what we’re eating are the seeds of the plants. Peanuts are known to be both an oil crop and grain legume, and most peanut crops are grown underground.
The word hypogaea, in fact, means “under the ground.” Peanuts are also called groundnuts, pindars, goobers, and monkey nuts, the latter being a popular name in the UK.
They have a lot of taste and nutritional value, which is one of the reasons they were popular with both Union and Confederate troops during the US Civil War.
Countries that Grow Peanuts
The top 5 countries that produce peanuts are China, India, Nigeria, the US, and Sudan. Here is a list of how many peanuts each country grows (expressed in the number of tons per year):
- China: 16.6 million
- India: 6.8 million
- Nigeria: 3 million
- The US: 2.5 million
- Sudan: 1.8 million
Other countries near the top of the list include Argentina, Myanmar, Chad, Cameroon, Vietnam, and Senegal. Worldwide, roughly 45 million metric tons of peanuts are grown every year. Roughly one-third of that number comes from China.
Where Were Peanuts First Grown Commercially?
For a long time, peanuts were not a popular crop. There were two main reasons why. First, they were considered a food for the poor. Second, the equipment used to grow this crop made it a very slow and tedious process.
After the Civil War, more advanced equipment was developed, and by that time, more people across the globe had heard of the food, so it spread in popularity. In the late 1800s, peanuts were commercially grown in Virginia, but they were used mostly for oil, food, and a cocoa substitute.
In the late 1800s, P.T. Barnum’s circus was traveling across the US and had vendors yelling “hot roasted peanuts” to the crowd everywhere they went. This helped spread the word about this delicious food, and more people became fans.
Soon afterward, its popularity grew again when vendors started selling peanuts at baseball games, and the rest—as they say—is history.
Tips for Growing Peanuts at Home
Peanuts are easy to grow at home, but you still have to follow certain rules to grow them successfully. These include the following tips:
- Water regularly, but not too much; watering twice a week should be enough.
- Once the plants get to around a foot tall, place mulch around them.
- Fertilizers are not normally required when growing peanuts; if you decide to use a fertilizer, use one without nitrogen because peanuts supply their own nitrogen (like other legumes).
- Peanuts normally don’t get pests or diseases but keep weeds away from them to be sure.
Most people find growing peanuts to be fairly easy to grow, but you should still pay close attention to any instructions you receive with your peanut plants.
The food we now call peanuts started as a hybrid between two similar plants that grew in the wild. It took several versions to get peanuts to look and taste as they do today. China grows roughly one-third of the world’s production of peanuts, and today they are eaten nearly everywhere.
I am an accredited practicing dietitian, experienced gardener and a dedicated cook. I love writing and sharing my experience so you can learn from my successes and mistakes.