Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beans: A Native for My Kitchen Garden

An early bush bean, from Vilmorin-Andrieux, The Vegetable Garden, 1920.
Most of the vegetables that I grow in my garden are not natives of North or South America, but were transplanted from other parts of the world.  It's pretty amazing that I can grow a radish or beet in my garden that originated thousands of miles away, on a completely different continent.  That's not to say that I don't appreciate the native veggies we have here in America.  One of my favorites is the bean.
Beans have been growing in the Americas for thousands of years.  It has been surmised that beans do not come from one distinct place of origin, but that similar plants grew across North and South America.  Even though there were many varieties of pole and bush beans growing simultaneously, all of these plants (with the exception of Lima and runners) were different forms of the same species.  Eventually these plants became collectively known as beans.  
In Pre-Colonial America, Native Americans used beans much differently than we might today.  I love to pick green beans when they are young and tender, then gently steam them.  Native Americans didn't eat the pod.  They ate the seeds at what we might call the "shelly" stage, and dried a significant amount for winter use.  Often, dried beans were ground into flour.   
In the 1880s, horticulturalist Calvin Keeney began to experiment with bean plants to develop a string-less variety.  He succeeded, and in 1884 introduced the Keeney's Stringless Refugee Wax bean.  Good thing, too, because the string-less bean made it palatable to eat beans my favorite way - pod and all!
This year, I will be growing two types of beans.  The Contender (Buff) Valentine Bean is making an appearance in my garden, thanks to lots of great recommendations.  The Contender is not a particularly old heirloom.  It was first introduced in 1949 and may have been an improvement on the pre-1855 Early Valentine variety.  The taste is superb, and at only 50 days to maturity, it is a quick harvest.
I will also be growing a dry bean for the first time this year.  I ordered the Good Mother Stallard bean from Seed Savers Exchange.  I'll admit that I was drawn to it by its purple skin with specks of white.  What a beautiful bean!  Good Mother Stallard is a family heirloom, rescued from extinction by Glenn Drowns, a famed plant breeder and early supporter of SSE.

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