The peanut, also known as the groundnut and the goober and taxonomically classified as Arachis hypogaea, is a legume crop grown mainly for its edible seeds. It is widely grown in the tropics and subtropics, being important to both small and large commercial producers. It is classified as both a grain legume and, because of its high oil content, an oil crop. World annual production of shelled peanuts was 42 million tonnes in 2014. Atypically among crop plants, peanut pods develop underground rather than aboveground. It is this characteristic that the botanist Linnaeus used to assign the specific name hypogaea, which means "under the earth."
As a legume, the peanut belongs to the botanical family Fabaceae; this is also known as Leguminosae, and commonly known as the bean, or pea, family. Like most other legumes, peanuts harbor symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. This capacity to fix nitrogen means peanuts require less nitrogen-containing fertilizer and improve soil fertility, making them valuable in crop rotations.
Peanuts are similar in taste and nutritional profile to tree nuts such as walnuts and almonds, and are often served in similar ways in Western cuisines. The botanical definition of a "nut" is a fruit whose ovary wall becomes very hard at maturity. Using this criterion, the peanut is not a true nut, but rather a legume. However, for culinary purposes and in common English language usage, peanuts are usually referred to as nuts.
Peanut pegs growing into the soil. The tip of the peg, once buried, swells and develops into a peanut fruit.
Peanuts grow best in light, sandy loam soil with a pH of 5.9–7. Their capacity to fix nitrogen means that, providing they nodulate properly, peanuts benefit little or not at all from nitrogen-containing fertilizer, and they improve soil fertility. Therefore, they are valuable in crop rotations. Also, the yield of the peanut crop itself is increased in rotations, through reduced diseases, pests and weeds. For instance, in Texas, peanuts in a three-year rotation with corn yield 50% more than nonrotated peanuts. Adequate levels of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and micronutrients are also necessary for good yields. To develop well, peanuts need warm weather throughout the growing season. They can be grown with as little as 350 mm of water, but for best yields need at least 500 mm. Depending on growing conditions and the cultivar of peanut, harvest is usually 90 to 130 days after planting for subspecies A. h. fastigiata types, and 120 to 150 days after planting for subspecies A. h. hypogaea types. Subspecies A. h. hypogaea types yield more, and are usually preferred where the growing seasons are long enough.
Peanut plants continue to produce flowers when pods are developing, therefore even when they are ready for harvest, some pods are immature. The timing of harvest is an important decision to maximize yield. If it is too early, too many pods will be unripe. If too late, the pods will snap off at the stalk, and will remain in the soil. For harvesting, the entire plant, including most of the roots, is removed from the soil. The pods are covered with a network of raised veins and are constricted between seeds.
Harvesting occurs in two stages: In mechanized systems, a machine is used to cut off the main root of the peanut plant by cutting through the soil just below the level of the peanut pods. The machine lifts the "bush" from the ground and shakes it, then inverts the bush, leaving the plant upside down on the ground to keep the peanuts out of the soil. This allows the peanuts to dry slowly to a little less than a third of their original moisture level over a period of three to four days. Traditionally, peanuts were pulled and inverted by hand.
After the peanuts have dried sufficiently, they are threshed, removing the peanut pods from the rest of the bush. It is particularly important that peanuts are dried properly and stored in dry conditions. If they are too high in moisture, or if storage conditions are poor, they may become infected by the mold fungus Aspergillus flavus. Many strains of this fungus release toxic and highly carcinogenic substances called aflatoxins.