Bean Varieties

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There is no way I could possibly begin to tell you about all the bean varieties out there. These are beans with which I have personal experience:

  • Rattlesnake – OK, I admit, I’m prejudiced. I love this bean. It tastes absolutely wonderful, it bears very heavily and it’s pretty. It supposedly came from the Cherokee Indians and is at least 100 years old. Also known as the Preacher bean, Rattlesnake is thought by some to be an ancient Hopi variety related to pinto beans. The appearance of the buff-colored dried bean with darker stripes bears out the theory. In my garden, it continues to produce all through the summer and fall, until a good hard frost finally lays it low. The purple streaks disappear when it’s cooked. It also makes a good green shell bean and can be dried to use in the same way you would a pinto bean. Unlike many pole beans, which tend to bear on the upper stems, in my experience it will set beans from top to bottom. Make sure you have a tall, strong trellis for this extremely vigorous pole bean as it will easily grow to 10 feet. Heat and drought resistant, Rattlesnake typically starts producing at about 65 days and will continue to pump out beans until frost if kept picked. Rattlesnake can be substituted for Borlotto in the fresh shell or dried version, although the flavor is not quite the same.
  • Kentucky Wonder/Old Homestead – Its first name was Texas Pole, when it was advertised in the 1864 Country Gentleman magazine. When J.H. Gregory offered it in 1877, they changed the name to Kentucky Wonder. Very tender, productive and has a good flavor. There’s also a yellow pole variety called Kentucky Wonder Wax that has a slightly different flavor.
  • Lazy Wife – this one is probably a German immigrant, and has been around since at least 1882. The name comes from its habit of setting lots of beans in clusters, which makes them easy to pick, and because – unlike the older pole snap beans – it’s stringless. Stringing beans is time-consuming, and a busy ranch wife would just as soon pass on that little chore. It’s another pole bean that will reach for the sky and keep right on going. Broad beans with great, rich flavor. Also makes a good shell bean.
  • Blue Lake – developed in the Blue Lake district near Ukiah, California, then taken to Oregon where they were re-selected. The first commercial variety was developed by the Asgrow Company in 1962. They’ve been hybridized and have a lot of sub-varieties. Available as both bush and pole varieties, and the bush variety will set multiple harvests, which most bush varieties won’t.
  • Pencil Pod Black Wax – the bean is yellow, but the seed is black, which is how it got its name. This is a snap bean, very tasty, with good-sized beans that still stay tender. It’s also an early bean, and may begin producing as early as 50 days. Although Pencil Pod Wax is usually sold as a bush bean, I find it more of a half-runner type. It will easily grow to three feet and produces over a long period of time – a characteristic more common to pole beans than bush beans. Unlike pole beans, it doesn’t twine very well, but it’s really too floppy to grow as a bush bean. You’ll have to tie it to or weave it through the trellis if you use one, which I do. The taste, earliness and productivity make it worth the effort in my book. It was a cross between Improved Black Wax and Black-Eyed Wax and was first marketed in 1900.
  • Pinto – this bush bean is the classic for refried beans, burritos and many other Mexican dishes. The name comes from the Spanish: frijole pinto, or speckled bean. This is another one that’s been around for thousands of years and it was probably an Aztec variety. Technically a bush bean, but it sometimes acts like a half-runner. Select seeds from the short, erect plants to help it keep its bush qualities. If you prefer the half-runners, trellis it as you would the Pencil-Pod Wax and select seed from those plants.
  • Mountain Pima Pole – In general, I prefer pole beans and I had always wanted a pinto pole bean; I searched for one without success. Two years back I ran across this heirloom. The dried beans are a little smaller than their bush bean counterparts but the taste is identical. I haven’t grown it long enough to have a good sense of its productivity.
  • Kidney – this is the classic deep red/brown bean used for chili. The English coined the name in 1551 because of the shape. Once dried, they’ll store just about forever. Like many beans, these originated in the Americas, most likely in Peru. Many people don’t realize that these beans contain a compound called phytohemagglutinin. They absolutely must be soaked and cooked before eating unless you want the diners to develop severe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Do not cook them in a slow cooker at low temperatures, as this can increase the concentration of the toxin. Instead, soak overnight and boil for at least 30 minutes before simmering in a pot on the stove or in the oven.
  • Garbanzo – this bean probably gets the prize for oldest known bean. It’s been around for at least 7,500 years and originated in the Middle East. You may know it as the chickpea, or ceci bean, and of course, as the primary ingredient in hummus. The Romans loved them roasted as a snack. Many people don’t know they come in green, black and beige varieties.
  • King of the Garden Lima – an 1883 heirloom introduced by a gentleman named Frank S. Platt. The vine will grow 8 to 10 feet and the beans are big. It yields heavily, right up until frost. I’m the only person in my family who likes lima beans, so I don’t grow a lot of these, but it’s worth it to have fresh lima beans a few times during the summer. You can also dry these on the vine – the pods are huge but usually only have two or three beans in each. Makes great succotash.
  • Henderson’s Bush Lima – unlike many bush beans, this one keeps bearing until frost. Great flavor. Most people describe it as buttery, although the beans are on the small side. Introduced 1889. Good for canning, freezing and drying as well as fresh.
  • Borlotto – Despite their close association with Italy and Mediterranean cooking, these beans actually originated in Colombia, where they were called Cargamanto beans. Similar in appearance to the pinto bean, they have a lighter and nuttier flavor. Although no one knows exactly when this bean originated, similar large bean seeds found in Peru have been dated to 2,300 BC. Borlotto beans are a descendant of the original Cargamento variety, bred to have a slightly thicker skin. The original name was actually Borlotti, but these beans are also called cranberry, Roman, saluggia and rosecoco beans. To really make things confusing, they are also known as Romano beans; they look nothing like the green, flat-podded Romano bean with which most gardeners are familiar. Borlotto beans are used as fresh or dried shell beans.
  • Blauhilde – another very tall pole bean, Blauhilde is as productive as Rattlesnake. With a name like Blauhilde, it’s pretty obvious the bean is Germanic in origin. “Blau” means blue and “hilde” translates as battle. These deep purple beans are more like a Romano in shape, with slightly flattened pods that can easily be 10 inches in length. They are even still reasonably tender at that size, although I prefer to harvest at about six to seven inches. They are not as colorful once cooked – the pods turn a sort of olive green.
  • Tarbais – technically, Tarbais beans must be grown in France, in the far southwest region of Gascony and only in the Adour valley. François de Poudenx, the abbot of the Cistercian Abbey Sainte-Marie de Pontaut, in Pontaut, Gascony, is credited with introducing the Tarbais bean to France in 1709. They originated in the Americas, however. These are the classic bean for cassoulet. Very expensive to buy (assuming you can find them in the stores), they are easy to grow. The skin is thin, which gives the bean its famous mouth-feel, and easily digested. They are also lower in starch than many other dried beans.
  • Cannellini – Supposedly native to Argentina, the cannellini bean eventually made its way to Italy, where it became synonymous with minestrone soup. They were being grown in the US by the 1800s. A type of kidney bean, this variety is grown only for the mature dried bean. While you can eat it as a green bean, I wouldn’t bother – too many better varieties out there. The tuscan region of Italy, whose inhabitants are often referred to as “mangiafagioli,” or “beaneaters” by the rest of their Italian brethren and sistern, cooked beans like these in heavy glass flasks, left to stew in the fireplace ashes overnight. It’s hard to find cannellini pole beans, but the hunt is worth it – they are better tasting, in my opinion.
  • Black Valentine – another bush bean but green in color. A true bush rather than a half runner like Pencil Pod Black Wax, it’s about two feet tall and usually loaded with bright green, very tasty beans. The beans are stringless at all stages. Introduced by 1897 in Peter Henderson.
  • Mung – mung beans are not your typical bush beans. For one thing, they are Vigna radiata rather than Phaseolus vulgaris, and related to cowpeas and adzuki beans. Originating in India, It is at least 4,500 years old; it was known in the US by 1835 and known as the Chickasaw pea. The pods are very narrow and almost square in shape, with ridges running the length of the bean. The primary reason I grow them is to have fresh bean sprouts.
  • Beurre de Rocquencourt – A French wax bean, named for the town of Rocquencourt, near Versailles, France. Probably descended from the wax beans introduced into France from Algeria in the 1840s. High yields and early bean sets with great flavor.
  • Roc d’ Or – another French import, this one has a more delicate flavor than its cousin Beurre de Rocquencourt and a more restrained growth pattern than Pencil Pod Black Wax. It’s slightly less productive as well. However, it will germinate in cooler soils rather than sulk the way many beans do and it often produced beans within 53 days.
  • Cherokee Trail of Tears – This bean is named for the forced migration of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole tribes from their homes in the Deep South to Indian territory (primarily Oklahoma), between 1830 and 1850. Estimates are that 4,000 people died on the Cherokee Trail of Tears, but many more died in other tribes and as a result of the wars preceding the forced relocation. Cherokee Trail of Tears is used as a fresh, shell and dry bean, with the dry bean the best-tasting of the three forms. The beans are black and relatively small compared to other pole beans.
  • Black Turtle – probably native to Mexico, and known there as frijoles negros. Around 7,000 years old, according to some estimates. It’s really not very good as a fresh bean, although it can be eaten that way. It tends to be tough unless you pick the beans when very small.
  • Scarlet Runner – runner beans are Phaseolus coccineus, rather than Phaseolus vulgaris like most garden bean varieties. Native to Mexico and other highlands in Central America, this bean is actually perennial in its homeland. Came to the US in the 1700s and is often planted as a hummingird attractor. Likes cool, humid regions, which makes it a favorite bean of the English, used fresh. The pods are bigger than typical fresh pole beans and the bright red flowers are huge. In the right conditions, vines will grow 20 feet or more. Flowers prolifically and is often grown for its ornamental qualities rather than to eat. These beans have a taste somewhere between Romanos and regular pole beans – it’s not what I would call a delicate flavor, but they are still good. They cook better if cut in lengths about one to two inches in size.
  • Monte Gusto – My favorite pole wax bean. A filet bean (thinner pods) with a much better flavor than any wax bean, pole or bush, that I’ve tried. Although it is open-pollinated and I’ve seen it described as an heirloom, I haven’t been able to discover any details about its history or origin. Very productive.
  • Gold Marie – This is a yellow version of the Romano bean. The flavor is fine but I did not find it to be very productive in my garden conditions, so after a couple of years I quit growing it. It needs plenty of moisture and a steady supply of water to produce well, unlike Rattlesnake, which is drought-tolerant. I suspect it would also do better in summers that are not as hot as ours.
  • Helda Romano – Romanos make a nice change in terms of flavor, size and shape from the typical string bean like Rattlesnake or Black Valentine. This one is a pole variety, although there are plenty of bush Romanos out there as well. The Romano flavor is distinctly different – more intense and earthy. Otherwise you treat them exactly like their skinny round cousins.
  • Yard Long Beans – I have not grown these as I like the flavors of my usual bean varieties better (and doggone it, eventually you have to limit your garden size rather than trying to grow everything under the sun). I know they grow well in my area as I have friends that like them. One of their positive characteristics is that the beans really are much longer than typical snap bean varieties, so you can grow a lot more beans in the same space. They are used just as any other fresh snap bean.

As you may be able to tell from my comments above, if I could only have one green bean, it would be Rattlesnake. It’s tough enough to withstand adverse weather conditions, prolific, and tastes wonderful. Add that it can be used in all three stages: green, shell and dry. Maximum versatility here. Second choice would be the Pencil Pod Black Wax, which is equally tasty and prolific, as well as being yellow, so it offers color variety. Pinto would be my dry bean choice.

Green beans will give you lots of vitamin K. They are also well-supplied with manganese, vitamin C, dietary fiber, folate, vitamin B2, copper, vitamin B1, chromium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, choline, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), niacin, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin B6 and vitamin E. Green beans also have silicon, which we need in bones and connective tissue. Dried beans provide minerals like molybdenum, copper, phosphorus, iron, potassium and magnesium, protein, folate, fiber and vitamin B1.

Next post – the recipes!

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