The Heirloom Scarlet Runner Pole Beans in
Thomas Jefferson’s Hanging Gardens at Monticello
Pole Beans Belong in Every
Here are 6 of the Greatest
Beans, corn and squash are the quintessential American crops – the trinity of vegetables – The Three Sisters. Of these three sisters, perhaps beans, are now the most pervasive crop originally exported from the New World to Europe, Africa Asia and Australia. There are many types of beans: bush, pole, runner, half runner, wax, shell, cowpeas, etc., but in today’s America maybe the most relevant type of bean is the pole bean.
For more than a century now, pole beans have been scorned by commercial and home gardeners because they need to climb something. This makes them difficult to harvest commercially and time consuming to grow as a home gardener. With so many Americans who live with small areas in which to garden, maybe it is time to take another look at pole beans.
For the space allotted, pole beans produce 2-3 times as much crop as bush beans. Unlike bush beans which have a limited production season, pole beans will continue to be productive until the plants are killed by frost if the beans are continuously harvested. And, pole beans allowed to climb a simple bamboo structure are visually a much more dramatic and, might I say, pleasing architectural element in the garden than bush beans could ever hope to be.
The Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans are the most popular pole beans available today. There are three varieties: Kentucky Wonder White, Kentucky Wonder Brown and Kentucky Wonder Wax (The only pole wax bean variety still in commercial production.) The photo is of the Kentucky Wonder Brown Pole Bean.
If you are fortunate enough to have a garden center near where you live that carries seeds for pole beans (and most of them don’t), then it is likely you will find Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans.
The Kentucky Wonders were first introduced to the American public in the 1850s. In those days they were often called Old Homestead beans. Their rich meaty flavor and their resistance to bean rust made them instantly popular.
Bean rust is a fungus which develops when wet, cool weather conditions persist. The fungus attacks all above ground parts of the plant and causes the plant to lose its leaves and flowers. It is most harmful when it occurs during flowering and pod formation, because it can adversely affect yield. If it occurs late in a season, the plant will lose its leaves, but yield will not be affected.
Kentucky Wonders produce slightly flattened, oval, 7-10 inch pods. They are among the earliest producers taking from 58-72 days to mature.
These great old beans have stood the test of time and maintain their popularity even today because of their rich flavor and vigor under many kinds of environmental conditions.
Pole Beans are the original snap beans. Bush beans are varieties that were spontaneous mutations of pole bean varieties that were then cultivated for their size. Rattlesnake was first introduced commercially in 1931, but had been grown by individual families for many decades prior to its commercial introduction. This bean is also known as Preacher Bean.
The vines of Rattlesnake Pole Bean routinely grow to 10 feet and are prolific producers until the first frosts. The pods are green with burgundy streaks and on the vine, are very ornamental. When cooked the burgundy disappears and the pods turn a uniform green. The beans are best when removed from the pods and cooked into soups or stews. They have a rich, hearty flavor. The plants are very vigorous and unusually drought tolerant. Beautiful to look at, fun to grow and delicious to eat. What more could you want?
Lima beans, also known as butter beans, come in large seeded and small seeded varieties. They are a very old bean known to have been in coastal Peru since 6000 BC. The small seeded varieties are thought to have originated in Mexico. The large seeded varieties came from South America.
The term ‘lima’ actually refers to Lima, Peru where it is rumored that an American Navy Admiral was introduced to the beans. He is said to have brought the beans back to New England where they did not produce well. Somehow the beans found their way into the Mid-Atlantic where they did much better in the warmer climate.
Lima beans require a long growing season and will not tolerate frost. They do best when germinated in warm 75+ degree soil. In soil below 70 degrees they may not germinate at all or they may germinate and then quickly rot. The biggest mistake that people make when trying to grow lima beans is planting them too early. Limas MUST, MUST, MUST have warm soil. If you live in Zones 5-7, you should not plant limas before June 1st. In Zones 8-9, plant no earlier than May 1st. In Zone 10, plant around April 1st. In Zone 4, planting limas is iffy, and they usually do not have enough time to mature in Zones 1-3.
The beans come in a range of colors from black to purple to red to white. Bush varieties were first developed in the late 1800s and grow on compact 12-18 inch plants. Pole varieties are the original species and grow on 10-12 foot vines.
The King of the Garden lima is one of the best pole limas ever developed. It was introduced in 1883. It usually will mature in 85-95 days.
King of the Garden produces 4-6 creamy white seeds per pod. The beans have excellent flavor and the plants will produce over a long period.
Of all the beans we discuss in this newsletter, the Fava is the most ancient and, in my opinion, the weirdest. In fact, Favas are some of the oldest cultivated plants in existence today. Archaeological evidence found in Switzerland and dating from the Bronze Age shows that prehistoric man was using Fava beans.
We know that Favas were part of the diet of ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Before Columbus’s voyages to the Americas, Favas were the only beans known to Europeans.
Favas are also known as broad beans, Windsor beans, horse beans and Scotch beans. They were probably native to Africa and the Middle East. They are eaten as snap beans (which is hard to believe given the size of the pods), green shelled beans or dry shelled beans in southern Europe, and they are very popular in Britain where, unlike most beans, they thrive in the cool climate.
In the United States, they are not well known, but they should be. They have a rich, nutty flavor that is said to be halfway between a snap bean and a lima bean, and they are very nutritious. They are an excellent substitute for lima beans in Zones 1-4 where the growing season is not long enough for lima beans to mature.
Unlike other beans, Favas require cool weather to germinate so they should be planted early in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked. Favas can tolerate frosts. The warm summer temperatures will inhibit flowering and pod formation so they must be planted early enough so that flowers and pods have formed before the summer heat or they can be planted from seed in mid-summer for a fall crop.
The flowers (if a flower can ever be called ugly) are the ugliest I have ever seen. They are white with flecks of black that make them look as if they are covered with soot. You are constantly tempted to flick the black off of the blossom.
And then there are the pods. The pods grow up, reaching towards the sky, not pointing towards the ground like other bean pods. This would not be a big deal except the pods are usually 6-8 inches long and a good 1-1/2 inches in diameter. They are huge! When you have a bushy plant covered with these giant pods pointing heavenward, it is just plain weird.
Fava Broad Windsor was introduced into the United States by the British – maybe as early as the 1600s. It is the earliest of the Favas to mature taking 65-85 days.
The bean question that we hear the most is “Should I plant a pole or a bush bean?” For backyard gardeners, patio gardeners, urban gardeners or any space-challenged gardener, the answer is easy. You should plant pole beans.
There are two great reasons for choosing pole beans over bush beans. First, for the square footage allowed, pole beans will always produce more. Second, pole beans will always have a longer production season than a bush bean. Bush beans, because they are a dwarf form, have shortened production seasons.
Originally, all beans were pole beans. Then, naturally occurring mutations produced dwarf varieties. The dwarf varieties did not have to be strung and so required less field work, but the dwarf varieties in addition to being shorter in stature were also shorter in production.
Pole beans are easily grown on bamboo stake teepees and can be easily grown in containers. Six pole bean plants can be grown in an 18-inch diameter pot, supported by a bamboo teepee. It is easy and also very attractive.
Native to the Americas, pole beans were one of the great gifts to the Old World from the New World where they had been cultivated for 10,000 years. Snap beans are meant to be “snapped” from the plant and eaten fresh or steamed. Blue Lake Stringless Pole was introduced in 1961. It is a heavy producer of round, 6 in. very sweet, tender pods. Good for fresh eating, canning or freezing. It is an ideal container plant.
Pole beans are part of a large family of beans that are known as common beans, garden beans, French beans and snap beans. The term, “snap” refers to how the beans are used. They are harvested young, eaten fresh and when bent in the middle they “snap” as they break. The wild form of pole beans grows by lateral runners, but the cultivated pole beans grow in a roughly pyramidal form with more branches and leaves at the base thinning to a single or double branch at the top of the vine. This pyramidal form made the pole beans ideal for climbing up cornstalks and trellises.
Runner beans, though similar to pole beans in that they produce climbing stems which can grow to 8-10 feet, are actually an entirely different bean species, Phaseolus coccineus. (Pole beans are Phaseolus vulgaris.) Runner beans are native to a small area of Mexico and Central America where they thrive in cool and humid upland terrain. Unlike all other beans, runner beans form tuberous perennial roots which are poisonous when grown in their native habitats. Grown in temperate climates the plants are annuals and do not exist long enough to produce the tuberous roots.
Most runner beans are grown primarily as ornamentals because they produce a profusion of white or brilliant scarlet to orange flowers. However, in Northern Europe, the pods are eaten either as very young snap beans or as green shelled beans.
Perhaps the most famous bean of all in America is the Scarlet Runner Bean. It has been grown in this country since the early 1700s. Thomas Jefferson had huge teepees of this bean in his hanging gardens at Monticello. The photo at the top of this newsletter is of the Scarlet Runner teepees at Monticello’s hanging gardens. The photo you see at the beginning of this section is of the Scarlet Runner blossom. Scarlet Runner Beans are edible, but they are not the best flavored beans even though they were an important part of the American diet for centuries. They are stringless and best when eaten young.
If you are a parent or teacher of young children, the Scarlet Runner Bean is an excellent way to introduce your children to bean gardening. Rumor has it that it was the Scarlet Runner Bean that inspired the fairy tale, Jack & The Bean Stalk. Grown as a teepee, these beans make a great hiding place for children, and their stunningly beautiful scarlet-orange flowers are fantastic. This bean combines the loveliest attributes of gardening – beauty, fantasy, history and culinary appeal. What a great plant!
Don’t miss our Saturday, 5-11- 2019 newsletter
on the historic heirloom squash varieties that
fed Americans for 3 centuries.