Ancient and Heirloom Beans

Similarly pleasing to see and to taste, heirloom beans have a long and colorful past.

| Spring 2017

Living in the Desert Southwest, I’m pleased to grow and eat bean cultivars that the local indigenous people have consumed for thousands of years — much longer than most heirlooms. ‘Anasazi,’ ‘Four Corners Gold,’ and ‘Taos Red’ are a few of the beans with venerable roots that grace my plate.

Humans have domesticated beans at various times in various regions. Over millennia, growers have selected for large seeds, bushy growth habit, color (beans are very colorful!), hardiness to local growing conditions, disease resistance, ease of cooking, and good flavor. Let’s take a trip back in time to learn more about the colorful history of beans.

Early History

Cultivated beans have been found in the tombs of ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Domesticated fava beans (Vicia faba) were found in what is now northern Israel and were carbon-dated to about 10,000 years ago. Favas (not a true bean, but a legume) were a major staple of the Mediterranean diet and widely grown, even before grains. Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) and lentils (Lens culinaris) were also common crops in the ancient world. Through travel and trade, these beans gradually spread into India, northern Africa, Spain, and the rest of Europe.

The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is native to the Americas, where it was a staple of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica and the Andes. This vining plant with twisted pods and small seeds is the mother of almost all modern beans — snap beans, soup beans, dry beans, and shell beans — and can still be found growing wild in parts of Mexico.

The oldest cultivar of the common bean was found in Peru and dated to about 8,000 years ago. Three other types of beans in the Phaseolus genus have also been domesticated: Lima beans (P. lunatus) probably domesticated near Lima, Peru about 5,300 years ago; runner beans (P. coccineus) in Mexico 2,200 years ago; and tepary beans (P. acutifolius). According to Native Seeds/SEARCH, the tepary bean has been cultivated for about 5,000 years in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, where it’s still a dietary staple.

Until the late 1200s, the Anasazi people inhabited the southwestern U.S., where they cultivated a white-and-maroon-patterned bean. Wild bean plants were found growing around the civilization’s ruins in the early 1900s. Since then, the beans have been grown out and saved and are now available commercially as ‘Anasazi’ beans.

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