Ancient beans our future
A research group is trialling nutrient- dense ‘‘ heirloom’’ beans from Mexico and North America in New Zealand that it says are important for our future health and well-being.
The Central Tree Crops Research Trust is halfway through the two-year trial growing nearly 30 different types of rare and unusual beans, some that have been grown for thousands of years by Native Americans, Mexicans or early North American European settlers.
Originally climbing beans, these varieties have retained their genetic heritage, and unlike modern varieties, many of which have been dwarfed for easier commercial harvest, they grow tall.
Blue shackamaxon for example, which was preserved by the Quakers, can grow to more than 2 metres high, much like the regular scarlet runner so popular in New Zealand.
In North America, beans have traditionally been grown along with corn, the vines growing up the stalks of the corn and in return providing nitrogen, which enriches the soil. The Cherokee cornfield bean does especially well this way, producing more beans when grown with corn.
As might be expected with such old beans, there are tales to tell of the origins of some of their names. The turkey craw, a brownish climbing bean, is said to be named after a hunter who shot a turkey found seeds of the bean in its craw (crop). The Mayflower bean is supposed to have arrived in the United States with pilgrims aboard the Mayflower ship in 1620.
Many of these beautifully coloured and patterned beans have been grown and eaten by generations of North American Indians. It was the Hidatsa shield figure climb- ing bean that first inspired the trust’s project and was originally grown by the Hidatsa Indians of the Missouri River Valley of North Dakota. It is half speckled brown, with the lower half looking as if it has been dipped in milk or cream. Said to taste good, it is one of the most productive as a dried bean.
The scarlet runner bean many people here grow originates from Central America where it is known as ‘‘ ayocote’’ and the starchy roots are eaten. Others grow the plant for its attractive flowers alone.
Beans, whether heirloom, modern, climbing or dwarf, are planted in spring or summer. They require watering throughout dry times but reward well in return. The beans can be green, yellow, purple, stringy or stringless. They can be grown for green beans or for use as dried beans, according to their variety.
As a perennial plant, the scarlet runner differs from others in that once finished at the end of the season, it will regrow the next year, although many people sow it as an annual. It is also good to help prevent disease by growing beans in a different plot every two years.
Dwarf beans require little support but climbing varieties do need a strong frame to climb up and along. A wire mesh support attached to a frame or building wall is good, as is a tripod or tepee made from bamboo.
The Central Tree Crops Research Trust has some schools growing heirloom beans as part of the trial and they sent 30 kilograms of beans to Christchurch to assist gardeners there.
Visit the trust’s website treecropsresearch. org for more information on beans.
History-making: A colourful selection of heirloom beans from the United States, being trialled in New Zealand.