A few weeks ago, when I made an elephant from jellybeans, my friend Tom suggested I try peanuts. So today I thought I would.
Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea)—also known as groundnuts, earthnuts, pig nuts and goober peas—are legumes, belonging to the bean family. They are native to South America, and were probably first cultivated in Paraguay. Peanuts feature in the art of many pre-Columbian cultures and, even today, non-domesticated strains of peanuts grow wild in the valleys of Paraguay and Bolivia.
|Peanut necklace made of gold and silver, Moche Culture, Peru, ca. A.D. 100–300.|
From the book Art of the Andes, by Rebecca Stone-Miller, 2002
The oldest known specimens of domesticated peanuts were discovered in Peru, and date back about 7,600 years. Cultivation of peanuts later spread as far north as Mexico, where Spanish conquistadors found peanuts for sale in local markets. European traders later spread the growing of the plant worldwide.
Peanuts were grown as a garden crop in the United States and Canada for over two centuries, but were used primarily as animal feed until the 1930s. Following a disastrous failure of the cotton crop in the American South during the early years of the twentieth century, agricultural scientists—most famously, George Washington Carver—encouraged farmers to plant nitrogen-bearing crops to replenish depleted soils. This included peanuts. Carver also came up with hundreds of recipes for peanut-based foods, and is today seen as almost singlehandedly creating a peanut-growing market in the United States.
As one of their names—groundnut—suggests, the peanuts themselves actually grow underground. The height of the plant above ground is only about 30 or 50 cm (1 to 1.6 feet). When I lived in Africa as a child, we always called them groundnuts, and they usually still had fine red sand clinging to the shell after roasting.
More amusing to a child were the sacks of groundnuts frequently spilled across one particular stretch of Nigerian road: the result of overloaded trucks that had tipped over on the highway. They made a most satisfying sound when people drove over them, and lured many a monkey from the nearby bush. But never any elephants.
|Freshly dug peanut stalks with pods, Stuckey, South Carolina, U.S.A., 2004.|
The plant grows small yellow flowers that look a bit like sweetpeas. Following pollination, the flower stalk lengthens until it bends and touches the ground. As the stalk continues to grow, the flower is pushed under the soil, and the fruit develops there as a legume pod. The pods measure about 3 to 7 cm (1.2 to 2.8 inches) in length, and contain anywhere from one to four seeds, or peanuts. It takes about four or five months from the time seeds are planted for the pods to be ripe.
|Peanut (Arachis hypogaea) flower.|
Peanuts are harvested from the soil by a machine that cuts off the plant just below the levels of the pods. The machine then lifts the plant from the ground, shakes it, then turns the bush upside-down to keep the pods off the ground. The pods are then left to air-dry for three or four days, and will shrink to about a third of their original size. Traditionally, the plants were pulled up and inverted by hand.
Once harvested and dried, the peanuts are either roasted in their shells, or shelled then roasted or otherwise processed. The most popular types of peanut are Spanish, Virginia, Valencia, Runner and Tennessee Red or White. Most peanuts in the shell are Virginia; Spanish peanuts are used in peanut candy, salted nuts and peanut butter. Runner nuts are used to make peanut butter.
In addition to such traditional uses, peanuts are pressed to make peanut oil, and are ground into flour. They are also used for unexpected purposes such as solvents, makeup, medicines, textiles, plastics, dyes, paints, and even nitroglycerin and fuel. In addition, the plant tops are used as animal feed, and the shells are used in manufacturing plastic, wallboard, abrasives, fuel, cellulose and mucilage-style glue.
Peanuts are high in important nutrients such as niacin and protein, and abound in antioxidants. They also contain resveratrol, which is thought to reduce the incidence of heart disease and cancer. Peanuts can be a significant allergen for some people as well, causing reactions ranging from watery eyes and hives to anaphylactic shock.
Today, peanuts are grown in many countries around the world. They require sandy, loamy soil and about five months of warm weather, so can be grown in many climates. China leads world production of peanuts, with 41.5% of the market, followed by India (18.2%) and the United States (6.8%).
For today's elephant, I bought a few different types of peanuts at a bulk food store. I was originally going to buy only peanuts in the shell (because I like those best), but I thought I would need some more colours, so I bought Virginia peanuts with the dark skin intact, and some blanched roasted peanuts.
I started by laying out a rough elephant shape with the nuts in the shell, as I thought these were the ones elephants would be most likely to eat, and figured they should make up the bulk of the elephant. Despite their size, peanuts in the shell actually work well, because they have a shape that allows them to nestle together nicely. They also come in various sizes, which allowed me to use single-nut pods to fill in a few of the odd-shaped spaces.
For the next stage, I added a few Virginia peanuts as an eye. I used four or five, placing a couple of them more or less upright, with two or three others laid over top.
To finish up, I removed some of the peanuts in the shell from the trunk and mouth area, and placed some of the blanched peanuts as a tusk. Because they were small, I added about three layers at the widest part of the tusk, to give the tusk some dimension, and to ensure that it didn't sink into the face.
It took me about half an hour to make this, and it certainly wasn't hard. Now if only I had a pet elephant to help eat all these peanuts.
Elephant Lore of the Day
Although peanuts are not an elephant's favourite treat—they much prefer fruit and sugar cane—they will will definitely eat them. And if no other treats are in sight, an elephant will do everything it can to get at the tasty snack.
Elephant keeper Henry Sheak wrote in 1923 of a particularly clever elephant named Dunk, who was determined to unearth a peanut that had gotten wedged in a narrow gap between the door and the floor of his enclosure at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.
Because the floor of the enclosure was several inches higher than the entrance, Dunk couldn't reach in with his trunk and grasp the peanut. According to Sheak, Dunk eventually paused, as if to size up the situation. Then, putting his trunk down near the peanut, he blew gently on it with his trunk until it became accessible.
Sheak also reports, rather endearingly, that Dunk was the only elephant he'd ever known who reformed his ways. It was once believed that when an elephant "went bad", there was no way to redeem it. Luckily, Dunk, who had turned rogue in a travelling menagerie, regained his gentle disposition when transferred to the zoo.
In fact, Dunk became so popular with visiting children that, when he was injured and had to be euthanized in 1917, the children raised money for a plaque in his memory. The plaque remains in the Elephant House at the National Zoological Park to this day, nearly 100 years later.
|Dunk, the first elephant at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.|
The photograph is from a 1930 book, but was probably taken closer to 1900.
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