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Diversifying the Bean Pot

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BY BILL THORNESS

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To get started with your own heirloom garden, you need look no further than the plentiful, versatile bean. You will have no trouble finding heirloom beans, as the ease of saving and long shelf life have made them the stars of the heirloom world. New Englander John Withee was so enamored with beans that he grew a thousand heirloom varieties, which he willed to Seed Savers Exchange upon his death.

The colorful, hard-shelled wonders also scream history. Cherokee Trail of Tears, a small black bean, has a heartbreaking provenance. It was a staple carried by the Cherokee people when they were driven from their land in the Southeast to Oklahoma by the U.S. Army during the bitter winter of 1838. Four thousand Cherokees died on the path, forever known as the Trail of Tears.

Greeks used fava beans as voting tokens. Native Americans string scarlet runner beans as jewelry. Names like Lazy Housewife, Dragon’s Tongue and Wren’s Egg speak to use, shape and color. Oregon Giant sports eight-inch, maroon-mottled pods. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan told one writer that his favorite seed name comes from a bean he was given by Southwest Indians that translates roughly as “little bitty kitty titties.”

As versatile as they are in the kitchen, beans also are adaptable to many garden environments. They like full sun, but will climb to find it. Some varieties are prolific on tidy, two-foot-tall bushes grown in rows. Many are forgiving of the inattentive gardener, and can be left to dry on the vine rather than eaten fresh and green.

 

Related: Cultivating the Past: Supporting Heirloom Varieties Strengthens Vital Connections

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