The story of the common bean takes us all over the world. Here, a seed explorer shares types of beans and how they arrived on our plates.
The showiest beans on earth: Joe Simcox started growing beans as a four-year-old, and has been collecting them since he was around 7. Beans are one of the world's most amazing crops, with perhaps tens of thousands of varieties.
My first and only personal meeting with the late Robert Lobitz happened on a frigid midwinter’s day in Minnesota. Robert lived in a small wooden house in Paynesville, and his passion in life was beans.
He made that evident the moment I entered his door. Robert was a frugal soul; his massive bean collection was stored in carefully trimmed and reconstructed cereal boxes. As Robert opened box after box of beans, a panoply of colors lay on the table before me.
He told me how he had been bitten by the bean-collecting bug as a young man; his passion embodied later that morning in a statement he made to me upon presenting a table full of diversity. Motioning as if to embrace the pile he said, “These, Joe, are a poor man’s jewels.”
A couple of years after I met Robert, he passed away. However, his generosity and passion live on. Impressed and amazed by the beans Robert had shared with me, I resolved myself to get them into permanent seed bank collections, and with other serious gardeners. Nowadays, many of the “one-of-a-kind varieties” that Robert selected are safely being maintained in national and international gene banks and with private collectors.
I have been blessed in my life to make the acquaintance with many people like Robert. There are bean collectors all over the world. Some do it for practical reasons — i.e., beans make up a substantial part of their diet, like the Guatemalan Highlanders. Others do it because they are awed by the humble bean’s diversity.
European Bean Collectors
Earlier this year I made a whirlwind tour of Europe with my fiancée, Irina Stoenescu. We visited vegetable collectors all over Europe. We started our visit by attending an amazing seed exchange event near Genoa, Italy. We then made our way to Central Umbria to the culinary capital of Norcia where we met impassioned families like the Angelinis who collect and raise traditional bean varieties.
The Angelini brothers described how they got into bean collecting: “Our grandfather died, and while sorting through his belongings we found little packets and bottles of these most amazing beans in his dresser. We knew that we should plant them in honor of our ‘Babo,’ and after that inspiration the rest is history.” Today the Angelini brothers grow out no fewer than a dozen distinct rare varieties that are from their grandfather’s original seeds.
After our heartwarming visit with the Angelinis, we meandered several hundred miles over the hills and down the coast to Basilicata. There we visited the farmstead of Domenico Belisario, a fourth-generation bean farmer who takes incredible pride in his family tradition. Domenico and his wife and daughters raise several varieties of beans that are the family’s own selections, something of which Domenico is particularly proud. All over Italy, Domenico’s beans are sought by those who know of his reputation. Domenico was humbled by our visit; for him to think that his fame had spread to America made him very proud and eager to share with us his family treasures. He made sure that we left his farm laden with precious gifts, which we promised we would share with all.
Our destination after Italy was Austria. Earlier in the year, I had been fortunate to track down three great Austrian bean collectors: Harriet Mella, Maria Ortener and Martin Rohla. Harriet Mella lives in one of the most idyllic villages in Austria. She welcomed me into her ski-chalet-like cottage. Before long, over tea we were sorting through her baby food jars full of rare beans. Harriet is a plant lover and her love for beans is an extension of that. Harriet shared with me stories and tall tales of other European seed collectors. Many of the varieties that Harriet showed me were so rare that no more than a handful of people still possess them! I left Harriet’s home with an intriguing array of rare beans that I had promised I would do my best to replicate.
Later, near the undulating hills of Graz, I met Maria Ortener, a dedicated homeopath and “bio” gardener who has been quietly collecting and preserving hundreds of rare European varieties for decades. Maria lives in a wood home, something that to an American is reminiscent of the cottage in the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. Her small office (in another fairyland cottage) was filled to the ceiling with seeds. She explained the status of her rare varieties: “I’ve been attentively collecting the old varieties of Austria and our adjacent Eastern European countries for a very long time, and it is through this gesture that I do my part to save all of this wonderful agricultural heritage.”
Maria’s collection contained an amazing number of beans that I had never seen nor heard of, such as the huge “Marvel of the Mountains,” a bean which Ortener herself had collected in Northern Italy. Then there were Maria’s prized Croation collections: beans that were elongate, flat, pale yellow, tri-colored, and blunt ended—astoundingly beautiful. Of certain pride and joy was Maria’s assembly of rare “Kipfler” beans. Those beans have unique curled pods and were once common in rural farms throughout the Austrian Alps. Nowadays they are almost extinct! We left Maria’s with another rare cache of beans and a gravity of conviction to do our part in preserving such a heritage.
Eventually, we ended up at the 13th-century estate of Martin Rohla. Martin and his family run a farm that invites city-fatigued Viennese back to the country for a respite. I had learned of Martin’s efforts to save rare Austrian beans through a photo in a superb book dedicated to the food traditions of the Alps. Martin treated us to extraordinary hospitality and shared with us his nouveau found love of beans. It was clear after our trip that dedicated gardeners exist all over Europe, and that they are the guardians of our food-plant heritage.
The "Common" Bean
To the uninitiated, our travel itinerary could suggest that beans are from Europe. The details of our Euro-centric escapades running around looking for rare beans are also about history but are only a tiny part of the grand history of the bean. This article is dedicated to one species, Phaseolus vulgaris, the “common bean.” Although the word bean is slung around haphazardly, being applied to everything from favas to cowpeas, my intention here is to strictly introduce this one species.
The common bean, (vulgaris in Latin means common), is anything but, and plant scholars are still trying to properly sort out the domestication routes of the bean. One thing we seem to know is that beans originated in two or maybe even three centers of domestication. One area of domestication is the area collectively referred to as the “Andean zone;” another is “Meso-America” (broadly stretching from Panama to Mexico). Finally, a third plausible distinct area of domestication is that which is now the Southwestern United States.
Beans have been eaten by humans for a long time and it is a marvel to go back into time and imagine the way beans once were. Like the progenitor of corn, Teosinte, wild beans are and were small, less than 1/8 of an inch across and flat — not too much to eat! Over presumably thousands of years, beans were selected until the size of the domesticated bean became something of substance. The challenge of reconstructing the process of domestication is that it is almost all conjecture: despite our facility to theorize, we really don’t know what happened. I like to imagine that somebody along the way was inspired and curious, meaning that humans made an active and contemplative effort to select an “improvement” from nature. Whatever the case, humankind has succeeded in creating a most wonderful bean palette.
Domesticated beans come in almost every color of the rainbow. I am resolved to create a color scale out of beans, and to this effort, I am constantly searching out rare-hued forms. Once while on an expedition to western Uganda, I came upon a bag of jade-green beans in the Fort Portal Market. The event made my heart flutter! I was to introduce bean collectors the world over to this wonder and proudly gave it the name “Fort Portal Jade Bean.”
Beans exist in tones of blue, lavender, purple, pink, yellow, orange, tan, black, gray white, and green — making them as the late Robert Lobitz exclaimed, indeed, “poor man’s jewels.” While many of us will be mesmerized by the colors of beans, beans are successful as a crop because of more than their looks!
The story of the bean is really a culinary one. Kids and adults alike in America know the little tune: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you toot, the more you toot, the better you feel so eat some beans at every meal.” While many bean varieties do have the propensity to cause flatulence, many cooks claim that their beans do not. Regardless, beans are a favored and popular food around the world.
In earlier times, not so long ago, beans were considered food for the poor and humble. In today’s era, the bean’s nutritional profile rings well to the ears of the food conscious and health minded. Beans are now the food of the elite, of the poor, and everyone in between!
The bean has other claims to fame. The Brits supposedly eat more than 11 pounds of beans annually in the form of baked beans, of which the leader in sales is Heinz. Beans are sold in huge quantities in the United States through the venues of Mexican restaurants. Preserved beans, both green beans and “dry” beans are still at the top of canned vegetable sales. With all of this commerce dedicated to beans, it is fitting that Americans are renewing the “original American” fascination in them.
Beans Come Full Circle
Early chroniclers of Native American ways described the “Three Sisters” — beans, corn, and squash — that were originally planted all through what are now the central and eastern states. Beans are a Native American crop that swept the world in the years following 1492, the year Columbus “discovered” America.
The legend contains a facet relevant to the seeds’ dispersal: it involves a conquistador, emperor, and pope. The story goes that the earliest beans to make their way to Europe were said to be the beans that Cortez gave to the Emperor Charles V, who then was said to have given them to Pope Clement VII, who was to have doled them out to some priests who eventually planted them in some monastic gardens. Eventually, beans spread about Europe.
Curiously, it is claimed that neither agronomists nor scholars paid much to note that the “Common Bean” was much different from other “beans” of Europe: i.e., fava and cowpea. Little by little, after the first contact with the New World, the common bean spread all through Europe. Eventually, European immigrants brought beans with them to North America, and the bean’s story gets back to one of the places where it started!
Over the centuries, the bean has had a merry-go-round trip across the globe, especially in regards to its travels to and from Europe. The myriad of bean varieties in the world today are in existence partly due to the keen eyes of farmers and gardeners.
Beans are generally self-fertile, meaning that they produce seeds through self-pollination. Beans also are capable of crossing if the right insect (a bumblebee, for example) transfers pollen from one variety to another. In the bean-collecting world, such crosses are called “out-crosses.” Over time, farmers and gardeners have isolated and selected such beans, eventually multiplying them and stabilizing them as “varieties.”
There are no concrete estimates as to the actual number of varieties/landraces of beans that exist in the world, but the number could easily be in the tens of thousands. What is for sure is that people like myself, Robert Lobitz, Domenico Belisario and you have ample opportunity to be amazed by these “poor man’s jewels!”
Joseph Simcox is an ethnobotanist and world food plant ecologist, known as the "Botanical Explorer." His work studying the world's food plants has taken him to more than 100 countries.
Joe speaks and teaches about an alternate food security — one that cherishes domesticated plant diversity and actively seeks to incorporate wild edible species into food production schemes more in tune with nature.
Anthony B. Rodriguez grew up in New York City and has been a plant enthusiast since childhood. As an "eco-journalist," he works to share knowledge for the prosperity of nature and humanity alike.
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