Similarly pleasing to see and to taste, heirloom beans have a long and colorful past.
For thousands of years, humans have selected bean cultivars for a variety of characteristics, including large seeds, disease resistance, flavor, and color.
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.
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.
Through a complex system of trade routes and trading centers, beans migrated to the rest of North America along with other supplies, including shells, animal hides, and stone for tool making. After generations of selection and cultivation, each tribe had its own locally adapted bean for food, seed, gifts, and trade.
The common bean has migrated around the world for thousands of years — from the Americas to Europe and back again with European explorers and immigrants. When European explorers arrived in the Americas, tribes introduced them to the companion planting technique known as the Three Sisters. Corn, beans, and squash were grown together because, after hundreds of years of experimentation, the indigenous people found them to be more productive when planted together than when planted separately. When the explorers headed back to Europe, they took along seeds of the crops they had encountered. Up to this point, Europeans had known only the fava bean. Over the next couple of centuries, beans spread across Europe through trade and migration.
European settlers renamed bean cultivars and returned them to North America. For instance, today’s ‘Mayflower’ bean may have come over on the Mayflower in 1620 to become a staple in North and South Carolina, but it most likely originated in its “new” location to begin with.
‘Hutterite Soup’ beans came to the U.S. from Russia via Austria in the 1870s with the Hutterites, a pacifist and communal Christian group who migrated to escape religious persecution. They settled in the upper Midwest and Canada.
Immigrants who carried seeds from Europe grew them out, making selections adapted to the local climate, and passed down the seeds as family heirlooms. Some cultivars were picked up by seed companies for development and sale. ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole bean, for instance, is one of the most popular heirloom beans grown today. It originally had the name ‘Texas Pole,’ which was changed to ‘Old Homestead’ around 1864. Seed catalogs introduced it as ‘Kentucky Wonder’ in 1877.
‘Bolita’ beans have been part of the northern New Mexican diet for centuries. It’s unclear whether these beans were brought from Spain, or if the Spaniards picked them up as they made their way north through Mexico. Navy beans came from Italy, flageolet beans from France, and the list goes on. All of these heirloom beans’ ancestors originated in the Americas.
White settlers sometimes received beans from native peoples, and some of the stories that have been passed down with these heirlooms are as colorful as the beans themselves.
My friend, Lee Bentley, gave me some dry beans he calls “Kickapoo beans.” According to the family story, Lee’s ancestors purchased a tract of land in Illinois in 1830. It was too late in the year to build a house, so they erected a large tent for shelter. What followed was one of the worst winters the Midwest had seen in years. The livestock died, and the family was running out of food. They were sure they would die, until Kickapoo hunters discovered them. The hunters went back to their village and returned with enough brown speckled beans for Lee’s family to eat for the remainder of the winter and to plant the following spring. Lee’s family has grown out what they call Kickapoo beans for nearly 200 years.
‘Great Northern’ is another bean that may have been transferred directly from indigenous people to new settlers. The story goes that Oscar H. Will, a North Dakota seedsman (and great-grandfather of Heirloom Gardener’s Editor-in-Chief) received a bag of mixed beans from Son of Star, a Hidatsa friend. Will picked out the small white ones and developed them for a dozen years before introducing them in his catalog with the name ‘Great Northern.’
When I lived in New Hampshire, ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ was a popular cultivar associated with New England, but it’s actually an heirloom from Prince Edward Island, Canada. According to Slow Food USA, the beans were a gift from the Passamaquoddy tribe to celebrate the birth of a settler’s child in Lubec, Maine.
Ancient strains are frequently renamed as they change hands. A friend of mine, a sales representative for Adobe Milling, gave me some beautiful, large white beans to grow out. He called them ‘Mortgage Lifter,’ which is a familiar name for an heirloom tomato. I searched online and discovered that ‘Mortgage Lifter’ is also known as ‘Aztec Runner’ and ‘Bordal.’
Although we don’t always know the exact origins of the beans we grow and eat today, we can still honor the bean’s journey from a wild plant to the popular, healthy foodstuff it is. Let’s preserve culture and biodiversity by continuing to share seeds and their stories.
Nan Fischer is founder of the Taos Seed Exchange, a free seed-swapping service offered to home gardeners in Taos County, New Mexico. She has a degree in horticulture and has used her knowledge to nurture plants for more than 40 years.
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