Heirloom Spotlight: The History of Beans


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.

There is probably no vegetable that evokes more loyalty from its collectors than the humble bean. The array of colors, shapes, and sizes is breathtaking, and to say that the choices for collectors are numerous would be mere understatement. Seed Savers Exchange has over 4,000 varieties in its collection, and that is not all of them. This huge diversity is the result of the very nature of the bean itself, its constant transformation from generation to generation, which results in new com­binations of color and a vast array of other genetic features.

The bean in early America was not so numerous, for as we move back in time, we discover that the functional uses of the bean took priority over many characteristics we look for today. With certain pole beans, for example, it was the ease of drying the pods and their storability over the winter that took priority over tenderness when fresh. For Native Americans, who tended to cat­egorize beans quite differently from Europeans, it was usefulness as a source of bean flour or adaptability in dumplings and hearth breads that received emphasis.

Pawnee Bush BeansOf course, for the Native American, the bean was associated with religious ritual, and its col­ors held sacred meaning. It is tempting to imagine that the orange-and-maroon lima bean, a bean similar to one buried in the graves of the ancient peoples of Peru, moved up the continent through Mexico and into the land of the Hopi. It is equally tempting to suggest that this distant food of the Incas came to the Hopi with similar religious trappings. But in the case of beans, nature is constantly assembling and reassembling her creation in such a way that similar things often emerge in several places at the same time. Their relationship is not always direct.

The discovery of the New World bean and its many forms revolutionized world agriculture, yet for several centuries the scientific approach to this body of plants has been chaotic at best. At the very outset, Europeans began calling them fasiolius, the name previously used for cowpeas by the Greeks and Romans. This led to heated debates about the origin of the bean and whether or not it was from the Old World or the New. As long as Europeans thought American Indians were the Lost Tribes of Israel — an idea that survived into the nineteenth century — it was logi­cal to conclude that their foodstuffs also originated in the Middle East.

The oldest depiction of the common garden bean in a European work is thought to be a 1543 woodcut of a bush bean in the German herbal of Leonhart Fuchs. Later in the same century, in 1553, another German herbalist by the name of Georg Oelinger made a watercolor of a red pole bean that is probably related to the variety known today as frijoles rojos, or Montezuma Red. While this is a bush variety, it can also appear as a pole bean. One of the important lessons in under­standing beans and their evolution is to discard the myth that pole beans and bush beans repre­sent different species. Botanically speaking, the two are only extreme forms of the same thing. For every red pole bean there is — or can be — a corresponding bush form, not to mention a num­ber of intermediate types. All of the common garden beans, regardless of shape, color, or size, belong to the same species and therefore will readily cross with one another when conditions are right. Scientists have designated the genus into which our garden beans are now grouped as Phaseolus, the species being vulgaris. Lima and runner beans represent a separate species.

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