Grow These Heirloom Bean Varieties

Reader Contribution by William Woys Weaver
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The following is an excerpt from Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History by William Woys Weaver. This definitive, intriguing and educational guide features 280 heirloom vegetables Weaver has grown and saved seed from as well as recipes, origin stories and photographs or sketches. In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Weaver highlights the importance of plant diversity and walks gardeners through sowing, cooking recipes at harvest and saving heirloom seeds. You can order a CD-ROM of Weaver’s classic book on our Shopping page.  

Amish Nuttle Bean Pbaseolus vulgaris 

This is an old cutshort variety with two divergent histories. On the one hand‚ it was preserved among the Amish farmers of southeastern Pennsylvania under the name Gnuddelbuhn, which translates as a bean resembling a dropping (the literal translation of Gnuddel is “turd”). If it is this shape that provided the origin of the folk name, then indeed the bean does have the general appearance of rabbit drop­pings. Such is Amish humor. The Amish use the dry bean for rich stewy soups and similar dishes traditionally served at their Sunday gatherings; thus the bean fills an important culinary niche in their culture. But the bean also has an alternate his­tory that is not connected with the Amish.

As early as 1802 Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia was selling this bean as the Corn Hill Bean. Other seedsmen are known to have listed it as the Corn Hill Pole Bean and Cornfield Pole Bean, sometimes even as the Red Cutshort, although it does not resemble the true red cutshort of the South. One of the distributors of this bean in the Upper South was the seed firm of J. Bolgiano & Sons of Baltimore, which offered it for sale during the I840s. The names connecting the bean with corn culture came from the Seneca and other Iro­quois peoples. The Seneca of Oklahoma referred to it as the Corn Hill Bean, and it was so listed in F. W. Waugh’s study Iroquois Food and Food Preparation (1916). Seneca informants consid­ered it one of their oldest bean varieties.

True to its old name, the bean is ideal for corn hills, especially for the shorter varieties of corn that are about 5 to 6 feet tall. It is also a late-season bean‚ requiring 90 days to ripen on the vine-early September for Pennsylvania. The flower is white and the pods bumpy and short, which is typical of cutshorts. The pods range in length from 3 to 4 inches, with 4 to 5 seeds per pod — very prolific by any measure. The dry bean is drab purple-gray‚ marked with garnet speck­les. The helium is reddish brown.

Blue Shackamaxon Bean Pbaseolus vulgaris

The dry bean can be used in any recipe calling for Mexican-style black beans. The shelly bean is a natural match for blue corn succotash made with Sehsapsing or some similar blue corn served by Samuel Miller, a seedsman of Mechanicsville (Bucks County), Pennsylvania. During a 1906 boat trip up the Delaware River to the site of Pennsbury Manor organized by the Friends Historical Association, several individuals received samples of Miller’s seed from Mahlon Moon, a local history buff who believed that the beans had been cultivated at the manor for many years. My seed descends from Moon’s distribution. The name Shackamaxon refers to a place along the Delaware River in the present-day Kensington section of Philadelphia. The bean was never grown commercially and therefore never appeared in general literature on American bean varieties.

The blue bean of von Martens (1869) shared some physical characteristics with Blue Shackamaxon, but no history was provided. It is possible that his bean was an Old World cul­tivated strain of its New World counterpart. The oldest strains of Blue Shackamaxon were grown by Pennsylvania farmers more as curiosities than as table vegetables. For this reason, the bean never underwent concerted breeding improvements.

The vines reach 6 to 7 feet with rose-pink flowers. It is easy to visualize this bean twining up the towering stalks of Puhwem Corn, the garnet-red bean pods a striking contrast to the reddish silks of the corn. The Blue Shackamaxon shelly bean is bright navy blue, the mature cutshort is blue-black. When the pods dry, they turn a purple-blue color similar to that of Blue Pod Capucijner peas.

Oral history relates that Blue Shackamaxon was cooked in “black mush,” a type of early American polenta made with blue or black cornmeal. Among the Lenape peoples, the bean prob­ably had a ceremonial purpose, since its color closely resembles the clamshell beads used by the Lenape for wampum.

The dry bean can be used in any recipe calling for Mexican-style black beans. The shelly bean is a natural match for blue corn succotash made with Sehsapsing or some similar blue corn.

Red Cranberry Pole Bean Pbaseolus vulgaris 

Amelia Simmons called it the “Cranbury” bean in her American Cookery (1796), describing it as “rich, but not universally approved” when compared against the Caseknife Bean and the Windsor Broad Bean. This curt observation reveals a great deal about subtle class distinctions in colonial America, for both the Caseknife and Windsor Bean were con­sidered genteel, whereas the Cranberry Bean was not. Garnet-red like the old horse bean and field pea of Elizabethan England, the Cranberry Bean fulfilled its role in America, or in the New England part of it, as a boon to the yeoman farmer. As such, it was and still remains one of the oldest varieties of bean cultivated since colonial times. It was certainly known before 1670, and it may be the red bean planted by the Indians of Maine noted in Lescarbot’s 1612 account of New France.

The name of the bean is thoroughly appropriate, since a basket of the dry beans can easily fool a casual onlooker into believing the beans are fresh cranberries. This association with the cranberry, however, is not a colonial American invention, for the name was borrowed from native Americans. Further­more, the red color also gave rise to another name, the Tory Bean, thus uniting the bean with political history. There are many beans sold as cranberry beans, but only one strain is the true one. Aside from Seed Savers Exchange and USDA, it is preserved for the public to see firsthand at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, where seed can also be purchased. Where would the New England kitchen be without its Cran­berry Beans?

German bean specialist Georg von Martens (1869)categorized the true Cranberry Bean as a Kugelbohne or grapeshot bean. In fact, the White Cranberry Bean was crossed with the red sort to create the speckled varieties now known as horticultural beans. Before the horticulturals underwent hybridizing in England during the early part of the nineteenth century, the red-and­ white crosses were simply known as mottled cranberry beans. A few strains of this early sort still survive. When the white cranberry was recrossed with the original horticultural strain, it yielded a variety known as Concord. And so it goes; an entire book could be devoted to the cranberry bean and its vast family tree.

To tell the truth, in all its simplicity, the bean is strikingly beautiful.

Its vines are slow to start, but as the season progresses, they begin to grow rapidly. The flow­ers are pink, producing straight 5-inch pods with rounded ends, flat at first, but then growing swollen and bumpy as the seeds develop. Historically, the bean was harvested as a shelly bean or as a dry bean, normally with 7 to 8 seeds per pod.

Dr. Martin’s Lima Bean Pbaseolus limensis var. limenanus

The precise date of introduction of this famous heirloom lima is not known because Dr. Martin grew it for some time before he began selling seed. My grandfather placed it somewhere about 1935, and most people who first grew this variety believe this date to be accu­rate. The bean was developed by Dr. Harold E. Martin (1888-1959), a Philadelphia dentist who owned a farm on Street Road near West Chester, Pennsylvania. My great-grandfather Weaver was also a dentist, and through that connection my family got to know Dr. Martin and his bean trials.

Dr. Martin’s hobby was growing vegetables, but he was also well known as an activist for pre­serving farmland. Today he is remembered for his lima bean, which is probably one of the largest-seeded varieties grown. It is also one of the finest limas for the quality of its shelly bean, very sweet, with none of the unpleasant starchiness common to many other limas. But Dr. Mar­tin’s beans need room.

The vines reach 16 to 20 feet and bear huge, flat pods yielding 2 to 3 seeds each. The young leaves of the vines are distinctive, blotched with dark and light green somewhat like the pattern on a watermelon rind-an indication that the seed is growing true. The seed itself often mea­sures 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter, sometimes larger, and is pale green when ripe rather than white. It is important when saving seed to renew it every other year, because the viability drops quickly in this variety. Also, be certain to save seed from only the largest beans.

Seed savers Merlyn and Mary Ann Niedens, whose seeds are well known in Seed Savers Exchange, developed a variety called Illinois Giant by crossing Dr. Martin’s with a speckled vari­ety called Christmas. Their variety has the large seed of Dr. Martin’s bean and the drought resis­tance of the other. For gardeners who have trouble with Dr. Martin’s where summers are excessively hot, perhaps Illinois Giant would be worth a trial.

I have also experimented with Dr. Martin’s, crossing it with Willow Leaf, which is known for its heat resistance. The resulting vines look promising, first because they are dwarfed and there­fore easy to trellis, and second because they are twice as productive as Dr. Martin’s, yet retain the large-size bean. Experiments like this are half the fun in growing heirlooms, a bit like a painter’s palette for creating new culinary treats.

Check out Harvesting Our Heirloom Historyby William Woys Weaver to learn how Weaver’s seed saving lifework began.Stay tuned toGrow It!for more Weaver excerpts on heirloom vegetable varieties.

Illustration by Signe Sundberg-Hall; photographs by L. Wilbur Zimmerman