Growing Beans of Heirloom Varieties

Growing heirloom beans, including string, scarlet runner, pole and lima beans, are flavorful and fun to eat.

| May/June 2013

Nothing quite says summertime gardening like the strain in your back after spending hours or even minutes stooped over rows of green beans. Whether pole, bush or intermediate, green beans hold a special place where summer gardens account for a significant percentage of dinner table nutrition. And many a youngster learns the finer points of life while snapping beans on the porch or canning the works in the kitchen. String beans are a uniquely American product, making three bean salad more American than apple pie, depending, of course, upon which beans you use.

A wide array of seeds coming from different plant species may be referred to as beans, such as garbanzo beans, fava beans or soybeans. These are old-world species, while “true” beans have their roots in the Americas and belong to the genus Phaseolus. The true bean was at one time classified with Vignas (cultivated legumes), such as the cowpea or the black-eyed pea, another old-world group, which is now considered a separate genus.

Approximately 50 species of beans are found in the Americas, and five domesticated species are cultivated for food. These include P. acutifolius, the Tepary bean, cultivated in the Southwest and Mexico in relatively arid conditions; P. coccineus, the pole bean or scarlet runner bean, originating from Mexico, is typically long vining with large, flat pods and seeds; and P. lunatus, the lima bean, which first originated in South America about 8,000 years ago. Native populations grow limas from the southwest to southern South America in dry conditions.

P. polyanthus, commonly referred to as the botil bean in Mexico, is the most recently domesticated of the beans. It is an older, less-evolved plant and tends to be cultivated in cool, moist tropical climates in Mexico, as well as in South and Central America.

Phaseolus vulgaris originated in both South America and Mexico, and is the most widely grown of the true beans — and the most familiar to us. This species includes black, kidney, pinto, navy or pea beans, Great Northern, cranberry, horticultural (or October) and other beans.

Growing beans beginnings

While not all botanists agree, evidence points to two separate centers of origin for the bean, one in the Andes about 8,000 years ago, and the other more-recent site in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico, about 4,500 to 7,000 years ago. Collected wild beans have been found in archeological sites from 10,000 years ago in Argentina. Other botanists suggest the beans came from only one of these locations, and then evolved into two distinct domesticates from the two locations.

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