Oftentimes we can trace our love of gardens, whether food or flowers, to a specific point in our lives. Read about the misadventures of a child, and the path she took. Also, learn more about the efforts of Mike Davis, Kirsten Gerbatsch, Mike Kiessell, Ellen Lapekas, Trina Ball, and so many other MG’s for their heroic efforts in creating community and school gardens especially for children. Be inspired and stay informed about the creative school gardens and MG-Seeds Demonstration garden project, and get involved if you can, here.
So what is a bean? Think you know? “Bean is a common name for large plant seeds used for human food or animal feed of several genera of the family Fabaceae (alternately Leguminosae).” From that point, it gets tricky. It doesn’t help we commonly call things beans that are not beans but look like beans, such as cocoa beans, coffee beans and vanilla beans. It also does not help that botanists keep reclassifying legumes and beans to be in different families and genera. Also, the term bean is sometimes used as a synonym of the word pulse, which is an edible legume. Confused yet? Read on…
First, a clarification: the term “pulse” is usually reserved for leguminous crops harvested for their dry seed such as lentils or mung beans. This excludes green beans and green peas, which are considered vegetable crops. Also excluded in the definition of pulse are crops that are mainly grown for oil extraction (oilseeds like soybeans and peanuts), and crops used exclusively for sowing (clovers, alfalfa).
So here is what I have surmised in my bean research as an overview. The Fabaceae Family (or Leguminosae), commonly known as the legume, pea, or bean family, is a large and economically important family of flowering plants. This group is the third-largest land plant family and is divided into several large genera.
Beans from the Old World are in the genus Vicia (broad and fava beans, vetch), the genus Cicer (garbanzo beans or chickpeas), and the genus Pisum (peas). Asian beans seem to be in the genus Vigna (mung beans, yard-long beans, black-eyed peas) and Glycine (soybeans) but botanists keep changing their classification. Beans from the New World are the genus Phaseolus, which includes green beans, scarlet runner beans, and lima beans.
For simplicity sake, the remainder of this article will focus on Phaseolus vulgaris, the common bean that we plant in the garden in the summer.
Latin Name: Phaseolus vulgaris, the common bean
Botanical Family: Fabaceae,
Description: Phaseolus vulgaris, the common bean, is a herbaceous annual plant, grown worldwide for its edible beans, which are eaten both fresh as unripe fruit and as dried seeds. It is considered a vegetable. Phaseolus vulgaris includes string bean, field bean, flageolet bean, French bean, garden bean, haricot bean, pop bean or snap bean. Kidney bean, navy bean, and wax bean are types of Phaseolus vulgaris named for their fruit and seed characteristics.
All varieties bear alternate, green or purple leaves, which are divided into three oval, smooth-edged leaflets. The white, pink, or purple flowers give way to pods 3-8 in long. The pods may be green, yellow, black, or purple in color, each containing 4-6 beans. The beans are smooth, plump, kidney-shaped, and range widely in color, and are often mottled in two or more colors.
Common beans are classified into bush and pole (running) varieties. Bush beans are short plants, growing to approximately two feet in height, without requiring supports. They generally reach maturity and produce all of their fruit in a relatively short period of time, then cease to produce. Gardeners may grow more than one crop of bush beans in a season. Pole beans have a climbing habit and produce a twisting vine that is 6-9′ in length.
There are many varieties of beans that are cultivated primarily for a dried seed product such as kidney beans, pinto beans, and cranberry beans. Green bean varieties have been bred especially for the fleshiness, flavor, or sweetness of their pods. Haricots verts, French for “green beans”, may refer to a longer, thinner type of green bean than the typical American green bean. The first “stringless” bean was bred in 1894 by Calvin Keeney, called the “father of the stringless bean”, while working in Le Roy, New York.
Origin: Beans are one of the longest-cultivated plants. The oldest-known domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave, an archaeological site in Peru, and dated to around the second millennium BCE. Phaselous vulgaris was grown by native peoples from Chile to the northern part of what is now the United States.
Phaseolus was first seen by a European when Christopher Columbus, during his exploration of what may have been the Bahamas, found them growing in fields. Five kinds of Phaseolus beans were domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples: common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) grown from Chile to the northern part of what is now the United States, and lima and sieva beans (Phaseolus lunatus), as well as the less widely distributed teparies (Phaseolus acutifolius), scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) and polyanthus beans (Phaseolus polyanthus). These beans were taken back to Europe where they became staples in European cuisine. Cannellini beans in Italian cooking are actually Phaseolus vulgaris from the New World.
Cultivation (how and where grown): The common bean is a warm season crop and can be planted directly into the garden when the soil temperature is above 65 F. Beans germinate very quickly, usually in 3-5 days. Harvest can occur in 50-75 days, depending on the variety. Beans are legumes, so they acquire their nitrogen through an association with rhizobia: species of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that attach to the roots of the plant. Legumes are often used in agriculture as the next crop to replenish soils that are low in nitrogen when crops are rotated.
As the bean pods mature, they turn yellow and dry up, and the beans inside change from green to their mature color. As a vine, bean plants need external support, which may be provided in the form of special “bean cages” or poles. In more recent times, the so-called “bush bean” has been developed which does not require support and has all its pods develop simultaneously (as opposed to pole beans which develop gradually). This makes the bush bean more practical for commercial production.
The commercial production of beans is well distributed worldwide, with countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, South and North America all among the top bean growers. Brazil and India are the largest producers of dry beans while China produces, by far, the largest quantity of green beans.
Fun Facts: Beans are a heliotropic plant, meaning that the leaves tilt throughout the day to face the sun. At nighttime, they go into a folded “sleep” position.
Phaseolus species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, including Common Swift, Garden Dart, Ghost Moth Hypercompe albicornis, Hypercompe icasia, the Nutmeg and various caterpillar species.
Nutrition: Beans were an important source of protein throughout Old and New World history, and still are today.
Fresh beans have higher values for vitamin C and vitamin A. In general, the common bean is high in starch, protein and dietary fiber and is an excellent source of iron, potassium, selenium, molybdenum, thiamine, vitamin B6, and folate. Beans also have significant amounts of fiber and soluble fiber, with one cup of cooked beans providing between nine and 13 grams of fiber. Soluble fiber helps lower blood cholesterol.
Culinary Uses: Green beans, wax beans (yellow) and purple beans are delicious fresh or steamed. They can be used in sautés, stir-fried or baked in casseroles. Shelling beans are beans removed from their pods before being cooked or dried. Fresh shell beans are nutritionally similar to dry beans, but are prepared more like a vegetable, often being steamed, fried, or made into soups.
Dry beans will keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place, but as time passes, their nutritive value and flavor degrade and cooking times lengthen. Dried beans are almost always cooked by boiling, often after being soaked for several hours. While the soaking is not strictly necessary, it shortens cooking time and results in more evenly textured beans. In addition, soaking beans removes 5 to 10 percent of the gas-producing sugars that can cause flatulence for some people. The several methods include overnight soaking, and the power soak method, in which beans are boiled for three minutes and then set aside for 2-4 hours. Before cooking, the excess water is drained and discarded.
In Mexico, Central America and South America, the traditional spice to use with beans is epazote, which is also said to aid digestion. In East Asia, a type of seaweed, kombu, is added to beans as they cook for the same purpose. Salt, sugar, and acidic foods such as tomatoes may harden uncooked beans, resulting in seasoned beans at the expense of slightly longer cooking times.
Dry beans may also be bought cooked and canned as refried beans, or whole with water, salt, and sometimes sugar.
Medicinal Uses: Herbal medicine websites say that beans are a diuretic and that bean pods are effective in lowing blood sugar levels, if eaten in large quantities, to treat mild cases of diabetes. A bean pod diet for this purpose would mean eating 9-16 lb. of pods per week be cooked like vegetables. Bean pod tea is useful for dropsy, sciatica, chronic rheumatism, kidney and bladder problems, uric acid accumulations, and loss of albumin in the urine during pregnancy. Externally, bean tea promotes healing of ulcers and sores. Prolonged use of the decoction made from the beans is recommended for difficult cases of acne. Bean meal can also be applied directly to the skin for moist eczema, eruptions, and itching.
My favorite varieties: Dragon’s tongue (purple spotted), Beurre de Roquencourt (yellow wax), purple-podded pole bean.
Impact on Culture: “Beans, beans the musical fruit” is a popular children’s rhyme. Many edible beans, including broad beans and soybeans, contain oligosaccharides, a type of sugar molecule, which are digested in the large intestine by bacteria. A by-product of the digestion process is gas and flatulence.
Beans, squash and maize constitute the “Three Sisters”, planting companions that provide the foundation of Native American agriculture. In the “Three Sisters”, the tall cornstalks act as support for the beans, while the squash provide a living mulch for the roots of the corn.
Appearance in Literature: Jack and the Beanstalk is a famous fairytale.