Heirloom Broad Bean Varieties

After falling out of fashion in the 1840s, the broad bean resurfaced and found a place in kitchen gardens. Learn about the history of heirloom vegetables and how to grow them.

article image
courtesy of William Woys Weaver
Detail of the flower of the Agua Dulce Broad Bean.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom broad bean varieties was taken from chapter nine, “Broad Beans.”

‘Agua Dulce’ Bean ‘English’ Bean ‘Windsor’ Broad Bean
‘Horse’ Bean ‘Martoc’ Bean

To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom broad bean varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.

A Brief History of Heirloom Broad Bean (Fava Bean) Varieties

The popularity of the fava bean has undergone a peculiar evolution in America. In the colonial period it was an extremely common feature of our kitchen gardens and remained so into the 1840s, yet it gradually fell out of fashion, only to be replaced by the lima bean. More than anything, the development of the bush lima and its preference for our hot summers sealed the fate of the fava bean. But the decline also reflected a larger shift in American tastes from English cookery to a cookery more suited to our lifestyle and national preferences.

Amelia Simmons discusses two popular varieties of fava beans in her American Cookery (1796, 14-15), the Windsor bean and the horse bean, two very opposite types of favas. The first was most certainly associated in this country with genteel cookery of an Anglocentric kind — recipes for the bean can be found for example in The Virginia House-Wife, while the latter was almost exclusively a working-class vegetable. The horse bean has been rehabilitated recently and is now being sold as a dry bean under the name “baby favas.”

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard M’Mahon offered fourteen varieties of fava beans in 1806, which may be read as an attempt to cater to a strong demand among the wealthy who depended upon him for seed. His Broad Spanish may be equated with the Agua Dulce I have chosen to include in this book. Of all the favas, it does the best for me. However, many of the old varieties, whether from M’Mahon’s catalogs or those listed by Fearing Burr in 1865, are not easily available today, and this hampers me greatly in recommending heirloom varieties for my readers. My overall favorite is Early Mazagan, one of the most popular varieties in the colonial period because it came into season before the plants were destroyed by our summer heat. Unfortunately, it cannot be had except from a few growers in England; therefore I must omit it but with heavy heart.

black and white illustration of a fava bean plant

The oldest depiction of a fava bean appeared in the great codex of Dioskorides prepared at Constantinople between A.D. 500 and 511. Signe Sundberg-Hall, the artist who has prepared all of the drawings in this book, has redrawn the plant from the Codex to show it in a more lifelike form. It appears to be one of the equina type of favas, with two, at most three, seeds per pod. When the ancient Greeks and Romans mentioned beans in their writings, they meant favas, for that was the only sort of bean known to them at the time. There is a recipe in the Roman cookbook by Apicius (Flower and Rosenbaum 1974, 138-39) for fabaciae virides et Baianae (green fava beans and beans from Baia), which proposes several ways of cooking and serving them.

Fava beans have been under cultivation for such a long time — many thousands of years — that the wild ancestor is now extinct. There are some undomesticated beans closely related to the wild ancestor, but they are not the favas from which our present culinary varieties evolved. The culinary varieties are divided into three types: Vicia faba var. minor, small, rounded-seeded varieties resembling lentils and often referred to as “field beans”; Vicia faba var. equina, midsize and rather oblong beans often resembling peas; and Vicia faba var. maior, the large, flat-seeded varieties presently used in cookery. All of these varieties will cross with one another, thus giving rise to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of intermediate forms. It is clear from classical authors that favas were used in both the green and dry state, but only archaeology has confirmed that the minor and equina varieties were known in antiquity. The large-podded (megalosperma) varieties like Windsor Long Pod and Agua Dulce originated in the Iberian Peninsula and cannot be documented prior to A.D. 800. Anyone experimenting with Roman recipes from Apicius must be careful to use equina or minor type favas for the proper visual effect and flavor.

Historically, the equina favas were raised in the Celtic regions of Britain and northwest France and used as a dry bean in winter cookery. In fact, there is not much historical evidence suggesting that any of the fava beans were originally harvested green in regions north of the Alps, unless consumed as a luxury food. Rather, dry favas were more commonly used to make flour for hearth breads or broken up into grits for porridges.

Planting Broad Beans

All of the favas discussed in this article are cultivated the same way. Seed should be planted as early as possible in the spring, preferably at the same time as peas or potatoes. Or, start the seedlings indoors in pots and transplant them to the garden as soon as the weather is mild. Young fava plants will withstand hard frosts, and some varieties are hardy to 12° F. In many places they can be overwintered by simply covering the plants with straw. The tops may die back, but the roots will sprout again in the spring. Since favas thrive in cool, damp weather — one reason why they do so well in England — it is far better to plant them early rather than later. Hot weather not only causes the flowers to drop, but also heralds black aphids, which attack favas ruthlessly. Henry Ward Beecher (1859, 223) confirmed years ago in his treatise on gardening that all varieties of favas, “in our hot dry summers, are very difficult to raise.”

The black aphids will sap the plants of their strength, and if allowed to go unchecked, will severely damage the crop. They can be controlled with insecticidal soap applied liberally at regular intervals. Sifted wood ashes also work, especially if applied before a gentle rain. The alkaloids in the ashes will kill soft-bodied insects without damaging the plants. But black aphids are not the only problem. Slugs present a far greater threat to favas in the early spring than frost. With little to eat, they are attracted to the young bean plants and will strip them to the ground in the course of a night. They will even climb mature plants to eat the flowers. Diatomaceous earth must be scattered copiously around the base of the plants; otherwise destruction will surely ensue.

Harvesting Broad Beans

Once the plants begin setting pods, crop the tops (the greens are edible raw or cooked) so that the strength is directed into seed development. The young pods may be harvested like string beans, or when more mature, the shelly beans may be harvested and cooked like limas.

broad bean plant with blue leaves and green pods

The outer skin is always removed from the beans before serving. It was common in early American cookbooks to serve the beans mashed to a puree consistency. To serve them in the skins was considered rustic and vulgar.

After the beans are harvested, the plants may be thrown into a heap and dried in the sun. They will turn black and brittle. This straw makes excellent mulch for the garden. For seed-saving purposes, however, set aside at least ten plants and let them run to seed. When the plants begin to die (the pods also turn black), the pods can be harvested and dried in an airy room away from the direct sun. When the pods are brittle and the seeds fall out easily, pick out only the most perfect and best-colored seeds and pack them into airtight containers. Use the culls for cookery. Favas raised as dry beans are also prepared this way.

Seed Saving

Fava beans are self-pollinating, but bees will cause considerable crossing, especially bumble bees, which are particularly attracted to the flowers. Since favas bloom so early in the season, they are even more prone to crossing than many other common vegetables. The suggested isolation distance is a mile, which means that varieties planted any closer must be caged to preserve seed purity. Essentially, it is safer to grow one variety at a time. The seed is good for five years; therefore, by rotating annually, it is possible to maintain several varieties.

Heirloom Broad Bean Varieties

Agua Dulce’ Bean
Vicia faba var. maior

This is the Agua Dulce Long-Podded of Vilmorin (1885, 25), a variety that originated in Spain as a selection of haba de Sevilla, also called haba de Tarragona. It is a megalosperma type that traces through haba de Sevilla to the late Middle Ages. It was introduced commercially in the middle of the nineteenth century and was illustrated in the Album Vilmorin (22, 1871), but was not grown in the United States until quite recently. However, the haba de Sevilla was raised in Mexico since the period of Spanish settlement, and therefore, Agua Dulce has many close relatives in the numerous old Mexican varieties that evolved in the Southwest. Many of those varieties are still available from Native Seeds/SEARCH.

The plant is about 3 1/2 feet tall, with huge, broad pods ranging in length from 6 to 7 inches. There are usually 4 or 5 seeds per pod. The dry seed is flat and rather honey-colored, and when boiled and worked to a paste, makes a natural marriage with pureed chickpeas. Individually, the plants are not highly productive, but a large plot of perhaps two hundred plants would supply a household amply. This variety always outproduces the others in my garden, all things equal. I can only assume that this has something to do with the fact that I am on the same latitude as Spain and that the sunlight in my garden reminds it of home.

Horse Bean’ or ‘English’ Bean
Vicia faba var. equina

Amelia Simmons explained in her cookbook why this bean was worthy of the kitchen garden (1796, 15): “English Bean, what they denominate the Horse Bean, is mealy when young, is profitable, easily cultivated, and may be grown on worn out grounds; as they may be raised by boys, I cannot but recommend the more extensive cultivation of them.” All of which is true, but since one plant only produces 8 or 12 seeds, this is a bean that is best raised in a small field. Since the plants do not branch and grow about 32 inches tall, they can be planted close together. The pods are 2 1/4 inches long and contain 3 small round, brown seeds. I grow this fava mostly as a dry bean to grind for flour. But since it is an heirloom variety readily available and resembles the sort of beans raised in Roman times, I take a certain degree of pleasure in using it to create fanciful dishes of an antique sort. The shelly bean is mealy, as Amelia Simmons pointed out, and therefore excellent for bean dips. Most important, the old varieties of favas like this one are extremely rich in basic proteins, carbohydrates, and vitamins. For this reason, vegetarian cookery has taken a new look at the fava bean and its culinary possibilities.

When planted in early April, the plants come to pod in early June but quickly succumb to the heat. As an experiment to see whether a fall crop would be more productive, I planted seed at the end of July. By early December the plants had achieved their normal height, but no flowers were in sight. Freezing weather did not damage the plants as much as bitter cold wind. Even if my weather had been mild, it would have taken the beans six months to come to pod in the fall, rather than three in the spring. This can only mean that most favas are indeed day-length sensitive, and shorter days will prolong the necessary growing season. For gardeners in areas of the country where winters are mild, this calculation should be taken into account. I might add, however, that the White Windsor will succeed as a fall crop in my region if forced in a greenhouse then planted outside in early September.

Martoc’ Bean
Vicia faba var. maior

To the casual eye, this fava appears identical to the horse bean. If I accidentally mix the seeds, I cannot tell one from the other. However, there are differences, and these are most evident on the living plants, as

black and white illustration of a closed pod and an open pod with beans spilling out of the martoc bean plant

botanists would point out. This issue was altogether immaterial to the medieval farmers who raised this bean, for this a true medieval variety, and the reason was simple. Botanists have discovered in the Near East and Morocco, where medieval field patterns still persist in many areas, that the farmers grew all their fava varieties together in very small plots. Due to crossing, each field developed its own peculiar mix of varieties, and this resulted in its own “signature” fava. Beans were identified not by commercially uniform varieties but by their field or place of origin. This is quite evident in the reference in Apicius mentioned earlier, where the author recognized a certain type of fava bean from the town of Baia. The Martoc is an English example of this process.

The Martoc fava is presumed to be one of England’s oldest strains, and perhaps the oldest pure strain of its type from anywhere in Europe. It was salvaged from oblivion by the Henry Doubleday Research Association, having been preserved for many years in the garden of an English bishop. It exhibits all of the characteristics of an old-style fava (2 seeds per pod), and I am convinced that it may be an equina x maior of certifiably ancient origin. Since the dry beans are rather flat, there is consensus that this variety is a maior, but a very primitive one. When I set the beans beside my Dutch Gray Peas, there is an obvious similarity in color and shape, even to the same black “eye” at the helium (the belly button of the bean). This curious coincidence throws some light on the taste preferences of medieval cooks and may suggest a reason why seventeenth-century New Englanders took so quickly to the Cranberry Bean. It looked like something they knew already.

Since the Martoc was cooked as a dry bean like the old gray peas, it made a murky brown porridge that today would have few takers unless heavy into ale. Yet for nuttiness and texture it is unsurpassed, and it offers a range of culinary possibilities, especially when cooked with whole grains like spelt, mixed with oats, or even broken into bits and used like nuts in stuffings or puddings.

The dry bean must be blanched before cooking. The beans are placed in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes, then drained. The outer skin of each bean must then be removed (a job for servants in the old days), and the beans simmered in water or meat stock for about 30 minutes, or until tender.

Windsor’ Broad Bean
Vicia faba var. maior

It is redundant to grow the Windsor Broad Bean and the Agua Dulce in the same garden because they are so similar in appearance that they could be confused easily. However, in northerly regions of the United States where the summers are cool and short, Windsor Long Pod is definitely the strain of Windsor bean recommended. For the heirloom enthusiast, the Windsor Broad Bean (synonymous with White Windsor is the bean of the old American gentry, and for an eighteenth-century dish of broad beans American style, this is the bean of scripture.

For this is a white-seeded fava bean with huge, erect pods. True Windsors produce only 2 beans per pod, like 2 morels to an apple tree. Windsor Long Pod produces 4 to 6 beans, not quite so rare and wasteful, and demanding fewer servants in the scullery. There was a definite social division between those who grew Windsors and those who grew Windsors of a lesser sort.

The Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London for 1833 undertook a lengthy excursus on all the fava bean varieties then under cultivation in England. Naturally, the Windsor surfaced ahead of the pack. Yet it is important to remember that it is of Spanish origin and entered England from Portugal in the 1300s. Its oldest name was Small Spanish, which places it on more equal footing with Martoc. Only through careful selection did it achieve its present form, and in fact, the “New Long Pod” was not announced until 1837, when London seedsmen Field & Childs exposed it to commerce.

Not satisfied that the last word was the last, the Gardener’s Magazine (1836, 259-60) published a trial of the known varieties of Windsor bean, listing all of the common synonyms, as well as the basic specifications. The dry seed should be “of white colour” and very large. Well, they are greenish white and, like Dr. Martin’s lima, lose their natural ability to germinate after three years. In commerce, however, the truly green Windsors were called Tokers (now called Green Windsors) and the small seeds sifted out of the seed stock were sold as Mumfords, practices that have given rise to the false impression that these were distinct varieties. There are probably several hundred popular names for various types and conditions of Windsor beans, but the truth is, they are all the same bean. The true Windsor is a noble fava with a flavor very close to a butternut. I can well appreciate why Thomas Jefferson grew it.

Susannah Carter’s Frugal Housewife (1792, 44-45) contains the following recipe for cooking broad beans:

To Boil Broad Beans

Beans require a good deal of water, and it is best not to shell them till just before they are ready to go into the pot. When the water boils, put them in with some pick’d parsley, and some salt; make them boil up quick, and when you see them begin to fall, they are enough. Strain them off. Garnish the dish with boiled parsley, and send plain butter in a cup, or boat.

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