Heirloom Spotlight: The History of Beans

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.

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.

Of 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.

There have been various attempts since the eighteenth century to organize beans scientifically and provide them with logical nomenclature. It has not worked. Horticulturists still rely on rather unscientific ways to define beans. A pole bean is obviously one that climbs, but it can also be a “snap” bean (eaten as a green pod), a “shelly” bean (the green seeds are cooked like fresh peas), or a “dry” bean, its dry seeds soaked and prepared in recipes like Boston baked beans — a recipe, incidentally, originally prepared by the English with field peas or with horse beans. Beans are also further categorized by pod type. Wax beans are any sort with pods that ripen yellow. This yellowness has been tinkered with by breeders to create a whole group of beans that are so tender they can be eaten raw.

Beans eaten in pod form are also called string beans because years ago it was necessary to remove the tough string that acts like a zipper where the two halves of the pod come together. Strings are tough, and chewing does not break them down in the mouth. Many beans today lack strings, which have been selectively bred out of the plants. There is probably no name that stands out more significantly in the history and development of American stringless beans than that of Calvin N. Keeney (1849 to 1930).

Keeney established a seed company at LeRoy, New York, as an outgrowth of his interest in snap beans. By examining beans in the field, he was able to identify plants with stringless traits. Through careful selection and breeding, he became the leading producer of high-quality string­less beans, beginning with Keeney’s Stringless Refugee Wax in 1884. Keeney also developed many varieties that were sold by other seed companies, the best known being Burpee’s Stringless Green Pod, introduced in 1894. According to Robert F. Becker, former professor underlying research of horticultural sciences at Cornell University, most of the stringless bean varieties that we know today owe their origin to Keeney’s work. Therefore, when I acquire an old bean variety said to have been cultivated by the Indians for centuries, one of the first things I test it for is whether or not the pods have strings. If it is a stringless variety, then it came from the Keeney tribe, to be sure. Native Americans prior to contact with Europeans did not eat snap beans the way we do. They boiled the pods at the shelly stage and pulled the beans between their teeth, discarding the pods. To them strings were not an issue.

Another native American trait in old bean varieties is the runner that appears on bush beans. There is an extremely attractive bush bean called the Pawnee bush bean that has white seed with brown speckles. The bushes are neat (no runners), the pods hang straight down in uniform clus­ters, and the pods themselves are identical in size and shape to several Bush Beans developed in Central Europe during the nineteenth century. This is not an old Indian bean. White man has tinkered with it. A true bush bean of pre-Columbian type will send out a runner, perhaps as long as 3 feet. This weedy appearance also involves a tangle by summer’s end, but that is the way old bush types grew. Most likely, Indian women trained them around the base of sunflowers or some other convenient large-stemmed crop so that the runner had something to wrap around. I use small bamboo sticks. Dead brambles or tree branches can be used if authenticity is demanded.

Today beans are organized scientifically according to how the seeds germinate and whether the two seed halves push above the surface or remain below it. Taxonomists are still at work on a major reordering of all the Leguminosae, the family to which beans belong, but this will not change the basic day-to-day reality of kitchen gardening, which brings me to my selection of beans for this book.

There are so many beans to choose from that no matter which ones I pick, there will always be omissions in someone’s mind. If I were to use my own historical kitchen garden as a crite­rion, then John Russell’s 1828 seed catalog would be a perfect guide to the heirlooms appro­priate to my house. His offerings for bush beans included Early Yellow Cranberry, Early Mohawk, Early Yellow Six Weeks (a wax bean), and Early China. His pole beans included White Cranberry, Red Cranberry, Saba Lima (a speckled sort), and White Dutch Caseknife. Several of these beans have ultimately found their way onto my list.

But this is a book for committed beginners, and over the years, experience with certain varieties recommends them both for small gardens and for easily cultiva­tion. Mary Ann Fox of The Bean Patch Heirloom Seeds in Shelbyville, Indiana, has provided me with valuable advice. She raises hundreds of beans in large quantities for the market, and her sensibilities are different from mine (I tend rather toward the exotic). Mary Ann is also a member of Seed Savers Exchange, so her beans are drawn from that large seed pool of heirlooms. Most important, however, she likes beans for the way they cook. She particularly likes beans such as Magpie (also known as Superlative), Pawnee bush, and the red speckled Hun­garian bean called Piros-Feher because these beans keep their color patterns after they are cooked (most beans do not). Some of her favorites are on my list, but not exclusively. She likes Black Valentine, but it is the Red Valentine that tells the story.

Ease of cultivation, of course, is another point. I seem to prefer pole varieties because they are vertical and thus take up less space. They can be trained to grow on corn or sunflowers, and when grown in such a combination, they also help fix nutrients in the soil as well as certain fungus growths on the roots of corn that protect the corn from disease. I start all of my beans in the greenhouse so that the plants are a good foot tall before they are planted. June 3 is the historical Bean Day of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the time when the first bean crop was traditionally put in the ground. This date also happens to be perfect for the cli­mate where I live. The best plan is to learn what seasonal cycles are typical for the locality in which one gardens, using state or county climate maps, not the oversimplified USDA maps published for the whole continent.

For bush beans, logic dictates that they be spaced a foot apart. I waste no seed to rot, cut­worms, or crows since I start the beans in pots, and spacing is much easier when the actual plants are visible rather than imagined. It does not set the plants back to be transplanted in this way as long as the root ball is ample and not disturbed in the process. In any event, by forcing my beans, I have a three-week lead on most gardeners in my area, and I can also plant more varieties in suc­cession over the course of the summer.

Beans are self-pollinating but will be crossed by bees that force their way into unopened blossoms — bean flowers shed pollen before they open. Cross-pollination is dependent on a range of factors; thus, in one garden it may occur often, in another not at all. If flowers desirable to bees are planted near beans, bees will go there first. I always have many flowers near my beans in order to reduce the probability of crossing. As double insurance against possible crosses, never plant two bean varieties of the same seed color in proximity. If a red bean crosses with a white one, the cross will be visible in the seed, not so with two black beans. Best of all, keep different bean vari­eties at least twenty feet apart. Beans for seed purposes should be dried on the plants and selected from plants displaying the best characteristics of that variety. I choose the most perfect-looking seeds as well, a technique also used by the Indians. Seed beans properly stored will remain viable for four to five years.

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