Humble beans back in favour

19:12, Feb 14 2013
beans stand
Bell Block gardner Annette Anderson.

We adopted beans, keen that they should have a good home in our foreign soil. They boasted quirky names, such as 'Hidatsa Shield Figure', 'Turkey Craw', 'Hopi Black Pinto' and 'Yoeme Purple String'.

We dished out some to fellow gardeners, believing that they too might want to share in the experiment.

Some planted theirs, while others forgot, but in Taranaki 52 gardeners responded to a call to grow heritage beans.

Last July, the Taranaki Daily News profiled Mark Christensen and the work of the Central Tree Crops Research Trust, of which he is a director. The charitable trust stems from the Central North Island Tree Crops Association and over a decade it has conducted research into the medicinal benefits of heirloom varieties, as well as promulgated seed to home gardeners.

In 2011, the trust began working with a seed-saving organisation in the United States to grow beans and have them inspected to meet New Zealand's import regulations.

The varieties selected included ancient North American Indian varieties and traditional Mexican varieties, as well as early American settler varieties.


Bruce Bryant and Annette Anderson were two New Plymouth enthusiasts who welcomed the chance to grow the heritage varieties.

Bruce, a tidy, thorough gardener, tried 'Major Cook's' climbing bean, which hails from Britain and was only introduced to New Zealand in 1953.

He planted the seeds on September 29 in seed-raising mix in his glasshouse.

On October 25, they were planted out, by December 9 they were flowering, on Boxing Day the pods were 10 centimetres long and by January 2 he and wife, Shirley, were eating the purple-speckled legumes that turn green when cooked.

The taste was not unusual or different from other runner beans he has grown. They grew abundantly up the wire bean frame, producing pods at a steady rate for about six weeks.

Annette received seven different varieties by mail after writing to the central research trust: 'Cornplanter Purple', 'Turkey Craw', 'Yoeme Purple String', 'Hidatsa Shield Figure', 'Major Cook's', 'Hopi Black Pinto' and 'Nell's Climbing Bean'. Some like 'Major Cooks' and 'Nell's' are climbers that have been saved and regrown by Kiwi gardeners for several decades.

Others were among the 29 varieties imported by the research trust in 2011.

Annette grew her legumes in pots inside, before transplanting them in late October.

Normally precise in recording what she plants where, she forgot on this occasion to note down the details. She is kicking herself, but through a process of elimination has mostly worked out which of her beans are growing where.

Some wind round a tepee at the front of her property. Others snake up corn stalks in the back of her Bell Block garden. The tepee-housed ones coped with westerly and southerly winds.

Cold nights in November stifled some of the germination, but more than a month of hot sun and warm evenings have bolstered their growth.

There are long, red beans, narrow aubergine-coloured ones and pods that have yellowed as they have dried out.

Annette says she has most enjoyed learning to shell out beans. In this process, pods swell with their seeds inside. They feel flabby, but have not yet dried. You pick the pods and shell out the seeds, and then cook them, with no need to soak them first.

In Egmont Rd, Margo Verveer grew what she calls a United Nation of beans: 'Dutch White', 'Italian Flat', 'German Sugar', 'Short Swift' and 'Purple Pole'.

She grows some for the family to eat, as well as saving seed that is in turn returned to the research trust.

Asked for her favourite, she says 'Dutch White'. "It's a bean I remember from my grandmother. It's green and has a tiny bean inside it and it's really beany. It has a very good bean taste - I don't know how else to describe it."

As well as housing beans, she gives seeds to anyone who shows an interest.

"For me, it's really important to keep the old varieties going and to hand them out to people I know who have gardens, so we all keep them growing.

"They've been around for so long. It's interesting to know people have grown them for years and years and it would be a terrible shame if they were lost and we were left with hybrids."

In Pukearuhe Rd, Jane Hart, a Central Tree Crops committee member, is growing six varieties. She will leave all six - 'Hidatsa Shield Figure', 'Seneka Speckled Bird Egg', 'Zuni Shalako', 'Hopi String', 'Gila Indian' and 'Price's Cherokee' - to dry on the vine before harvesting them from late April.

By growing beans like this, she is replicating supplies for other gardeners around the country.

In Douglas, East Taranaki, Cathy Walter tried growing corn this year after the central trust sent her seeds of the 'Painted Mountain' corn originally from Montana in the United States.

Last year, she grew the varieties 'Cherokee', 'Good Mother Stallard' and 'Mother Goose' to return the multiplied seed to the research trust.

This year's corn, of which there are 60 plants, is multicoloured. "Some are red with a red cob and others are green with a green cob. It's pretty to look at."

She says it's meant to suit cold climates. Nonetheless, conscious that she didn't want to lose any of this precious heritage stock, she grew them in her tunnel house before planting them out. Liquid fertilisers created from separate barrels of comfrey and seaweed feed the flourishing plants.

From Whanganui, Mark Christensen hails this summer's bean-growing project as a "tremendous success".

He says the research trust has 11 existing growers, 34 new growers in different parts of the country and in Taranaki there are 52 growers - all new in this growing season.

"We're delighted really, because over a number of weeks, we were getting so many queries and we gradually filled them as interest came through.

"It wasn't until later that we saw the list and were surprised at how many there were."

He is just starting to receive feedback. "People are reporting that it has been a very good summer and that they've had prolific beans and given away lots. One or two were caught out by planting too early. Some [varieties] are quite dependent on the soil being warm enough for germination."

Lessons have been learnt. Last year, he planted 'Hopi String' outside and says it performed like a stunted dwarf bean. This year it's in a tunnel house and its growth has shot away.

"It's a beautiful bean, a magnificent dry bean. It's the one from the Hopi reservation [in North America] where the person who collected it was told that whenever someone left, they always sent back, wherever they went, for that bean."

When pods appear, they're deep purple, indicating that they contain certain compounds that are good for your health.

There have been setbacks too. Another 27 varieties were grown for the trust in the US, but late last year a common mosaic virus was detected on three of the varieties. Subsequently, none of those varieties could be imported.

"It was quite disappointing, but like everything, it's a learning curve. We will have another go."

The 24 non-disease beans will be regrown in May, harvested in October and should arrive in November.

Generous, careful gardeners are willing to give up ground to grow beans that will multiply old-fashioned stocks.

Some they eat, some they save and some are forgotten about, but they are attempting to do their bit for biodiversity.

GOOD TO EAT There are three main ways to eat beans and some bean varieties have been grown for centuries because they are well suited to one or more of these practices.

Eating pods is the traditional Kiwi way. Pick beans before the seeds have begun to swell noticeably in the pods. Cut off the tough stems. Snap one in half to see if it has strings running down both sides. If so, then you should be able to cut the top and bottom of the pod and peel the string from one side as you do so. Cook until tender.

A second option is to eat dry beans by first soaking them, usually overnight, before cooking. These are versatile and ideal for use in everything from stews to salads.

A third option is the fresh shellout. The pods are swollen with their seeds inside and have gone past the edible-pod stage. The pods may feel flabby, but have not yet dried. At this point, pick the pods and shell out the seeds, and then cook them, with no need to soak them first.

Taranaki Daily News