7 Heirloom Beans to Plant in Your Garden This Year

Happy Year of Pulses! The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2016 the Year of Pulses, so I've decided to do a blog series discussing what pulses are and why they are important. This is just one of many posts discussing the magical world of beans and other pulses. To learn more check out some of my other posts here.

Jacob’s Cattle
Other names: Trout Bean, Appaloosa Bean
                                            Photo Credit: awhaley.com

This is an heirloom bean from Prince Edward Island. According to some, it was a gift from the Maine Passamaquoddy to Joseph Clark, who was the first white child born in Lubec, Maine (4). Some say that New Englanders named the bean after the biblical story of Jacob and his spotted cattle. They have been a hugely popular bean among white settlers in New England since the 1700s. They were also the favorite bean on John Withee, who was born in Portland, Maine in 1910. He was the son of a grocer and ate beans often during his childhood. As an adult he recalled this bean and decided to track it down; at the time it had fallen into obscurity as Americans were growing just a handful of varieties. Well, he found it and 1,200 separate strains as well between 1960 and 1980. It became his lifelong passion to collect and preserve heirloom beans but it quickly took too much effort to keep growing all of these varieties himself so he started the Wanigan Associates. The Wanigan Associates were named for the floating cook shanties, called wanigans, which followed lumbermen down the rivers in Maine, feeding them copious amounts of beans. In 1981 he turned the Wanigan Associates’ collection of beans over to Seed Savers Exchange, where the have made their way to thousands of gardeners across the world. Known as “the world’s greatest bean collector”, John Withee single handedly saved thousands of heirloom bean varieties from certain extinction (5).
This is the bean that I used to make my bean hole beans. You can read my blog post about it here. This productive variety makes for excellent baked beans, which hold their skins nicely and maintain a beautiful, vivid pattern. This New England tradition is definitely one of my favorite dry beans.

Bush Bean- 90 days

Uses: baking and soups, also a good green bean

Cherokee Trail of Tears

Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange
“Between 1838 and 1839 the Cherokee people of the United States were forced to march across the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma. This winter death march is known as the Trail of Tears as over 4,000 people died making the trip. In 1977 a member of Seed Savers Exchange named Dr. John Wyche from Hugo, Oklahoma donated these seeds to our collection. It is thought that his Cherokee ancestors carried this heirloom bean with them on the Trail of Tears.”-Seed Savers Exchange

This was the first variety of dry bean that I grew a couple of years ago. It is an excellent climber and did well on the trellis that I set up for it. It was not the most productive plant but then again, I did not manage it all that well. Despite not tending it all summer, I still managed to harvest a pint jar of beans from just a handful of plants. It is still one of the most beautiful beans, in my opinion, and I cherish the seed that I have. It is definitely worth growing for the history and beauty alone.

All Purpose
85 days to maturity
Pole Habit

Purple Kingsessing
Also called Lenape Blue Bread

Photo Credit: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

The name “kingsessing” comes from a Lenape word, “Chingsessing”, meaning “a place where there is a meadow”. This bean is now being grown again in this of area Southwest Philadelphia, called Kingsessing, where the Lenape used to grow it before the arrival of Swedish settlers in the 1600s.  These beans were obtained by Baker Creek Heirloom who received them from William Woys Weaver who got them from a man in Oklahoma in 1975. Most of the Lenape reside in Oklahoma after being forcibly relocated there in the 1860s. The Lenape used this bean for stews as well as flour. Purple Kingsessing beans produce long vines up to 8 ft in length!

Turkey Craw

Photo Credit: Slow Foods USA

This heirloom is from Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. It is said to have been found in the craw of a turkey brought back by a hunter in the 1800s, who some believe was an African American slave. It is a pole habit bean with stringless pods that is often planted with corn. It was donated to Seed Savers Exchange in 1981 as part of the Wanigan Associates collection of beans, started by John Withee.

Uses: snap or dry, works well for all uses
Pole Habit
90 Days

Hidatsa Red and Hidatsa Shield Figure
Hidatsa Red is a variety of bean from the Hidatsa people of the Missouri River Valley in North Dakota. The Hidatsa grew 5 varieties of beans:
Having grown them for 1,500 to 2,000 years the Hidatsa varieties of beans had plenty of time to adapt to the growing conditions of the Great Plains. The Hidatsa traded these beans with the nearby Mandan and Arikara as well as Europeans later, including with Lewis and Clark in the winter of 1804-1805 (6). This is also where Sacagawea joined the Corps of Discovery as she had lived with the Hidatsa after being taken from the Shoshone at the age of 12 (7).  

In the early 20th century the Hidatsa’s agricultural techniques were recorded by a Hidatsa woman named Maxi’diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) and published by Gilbert Livingston Wilson in 1917 under the name Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians. In what is now titled Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden she describes how they cultivated, harvested, and ate their crops, including beans. She talks about the 5 varieties and how they planted them with corn, squash, and sunflowers (8). This is the pattern she described: sf- sunflower c-corn b- bean sq-squash

I highly recommend buying Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians (Borealis Books); it is one of the most complete resources we have today of Native American gardening techniques. It is also chock full of wonderful stories, songs, and traditions of the Hidatsa People.

Hidatsa Red:
Sprawling bush/pole combination (may grow 3 ft if given support)
Uses: Baking, soup
80 -100 days

Shield Figure:
Pole habit
Uses: Baking, soup
90 days

O’odham White Tepary
Known as Stoa Bawi or To:Ta Bawi among the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham
Photo Credit: Ramona Farms

White, as well as brown, tepary beans have been grown by the O’odham people of what is today known as the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico for thousands of years. The Tohono O’odham, whose name means the Desert People, were once called the Papago, meaning Bean People. The name tepary comes from the O’odham word T pawi, meaning “it is beans”. Tepary beans are high in fat and low in sugars and once provided 49% of the O’odham’s protein.These beans are one of the most drought resistant varieties it the world. It is even said that they are able to mature fully from a single heavy rain during the rainy summer monsoon season. The O’odham plant them in the wet soil and they are able to grow fully from there with no irrigation in the heat of the Sonoran summer.  When planting, the O’odham would sing a special song to ask their creator I’itoi to bless them with an abundant harvest (11). They were a vital food source along with corn, squash, cactus buds, cactus fruits, and other wild plants and animals. Their corn, known as Hun by the O’odham, can grow a full 8 ft tall and produce large mature ears in just 60 days; it is the fastest growing corn in the world. Until the mid 20th century, they were entirely self sufficient, cultivating over 20,000 acres of floodplain in the Sonoran lowlands. In the 1930s they were producing 1.4 million pounds of tepary beans. In 2001, less than 100 lbs were produced. Collection of wild foods also declined dramatically. This happened as the United States government came in and forced entire families into labor on huge cotton plantations, causing them to be away from home for 6-8 months of the year, leaving no time for gardening and foraging. Children were forced into boarding schools, where they were prohibited from learning their native language and skills, meaning that an entire generation quickly forgot methods of growing or obtaining food. During WWII most of the young men, who were responsible for farming previously, were drafted although they were not yet U.S. citizens. One O’odham man who fought in WWII was named Ira Hayes. He became famous after being photographed in the iconic image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Despite his national fame, he returned to his home to find that he had gained no respect from the O’odham and that he now had no role within the community. After going in and out of prison for years, he died of exposure and alcohol poisoning alone at the age of 32. During all of this, the government was diverting water from the Colorado and Gila Rivers, preventing the floods that previously nourished the O’odhams crops.  The government was also supplying the O’odham with surplus commodity foods, such as white flour and lard. As people began to eat more of these processed foods and fewer wild harvested or homegrown foods, health declined among the O’odham. Today, more than 50% of the population develops diabetes at some point  in their lifetime. The death rate from the disease is three times higher for the O’odham than the average rate in Arizona. As I mentioned earlier, this is caused by the O’odham’s adaptations to desert life. Their bodies evolved to rely on low sugar, high fiber foods that released nutrients slowly. What this means is that junk food today is much, much more unhealthy for the O’odham than it is for other populations. In order to restore the health of the community, the O’odham have begun growing their ancestral crops and foraging from the land once again. Foods such as mesquite, cholla cactus buds, prickly pear cactus, and, of course, tepary beans provide soluble fibers which form a gel that slows digestion and prevent hunger inducing swings in blood sugar levels. This traditional diet was, and still is, ideally suited for life in the desert. It is not only the food being revived by this movement, though, it is revitalizing their art and basketry, their stories and ceremonies, their ecological knowledge, and their sense of identity (10). 

One O'odham story begins with coyote playing in a house, sniffing around near all the cooking utensils, looking for something to eat. Suddenly, he hears someone coming so he grabs the closest thing he can and sprints out of the house carry a bag of white tepary beans in his mouth. As he ran out, he flew away across the sky, dropping beans as he went, creating the milky way.

Let me know in the comments below: What are your favorite heirloom beans and why?

  1. Beans: A History
  2.  Reader, Tristan. "Chapter 5 Native Food Sovereignty," The Tohono O'odham Food System: A Short History. Version 2 (2012) Source: Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA) http:www.tocaonline.org and date accessed.
  3. http://nativeseeds.org/learn/seed-diaries/362-tohono-o-odham-white-tepary-bean

Disclaimer: This blog is just my own opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be completly accurate or complete. Sorry, I'm only human, so do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog (seriously not very much at all guys). If you click on any of the links in my blog I may make money from it. I'm not sponsored by any of these people I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them. 

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