“Grow what you eat, and eat what you grow.”
It is the sort of advice that fits on a bumper sticker. Economy, frugality, efficiency, these are all admirable virtues. But in September, when the onions have been braided and hung, when the sauerkraut crock on the kitchen floor has begun to bubble, when the lids on the jars of stewed tomatoes fresh from the pressure canner are snapping shut, one is grateful for exceptions. There are some things in the garden that don’t have to be eaten, edible though they may be, even delicious. Take for instance the artichoke, a perennial whose seedlings here in New Hampshire must be carefully vernalized to yield a harvest. When that long-awaited bud appears, does one have to cut it off and steam it? Not when leaving it to open yields the largest most beautiful thistle blossom of all, a flower to rival a king protea.
Artichokes are too much of a high-wire act for me to grow them regularly. Instead, I am growing pole beans for show. Just inside the main vegetable garden gate are two columns of ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans, Phaseolus coccineus, a native of the mountains of Mexico. The shiny seeds of this variety of runner bean, mauve and black, are nearly an inch long. Sown as soon as the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees, and thinned to three plants per pole, they have swiftly climbed to a height of eight feet. The stems of orange-red flowers that have followed are as arresting as survey flagging. They are also hummingbird magnets. Even a person weeding nearby scarcely deters our resident ruby-throated hummingbirds from visiting every blossom.
My second fancy climber is the hyacinth bean, Lablab purpureus (formerly called Dolichos lablab) which originated in Africa but is now distributed pan-tropically. Its seeds are only slightly bigger than a pea, flat black with a distinctive white hilum where they were attached to the pod. This year a single plant (started indoors several weeks before the last frost) is growing up a tripod of poles to the left of the house’s front door. The variety is ‘Ruby Moon’ with green and purple foliage. A length of baling twine leading from the top of the tripod to a screw-eye under the eave of the house has allowed the vine to climb to a height of twenty feet in a single summer. The flowers are lilac trusses that are just as attractive to hummingbirds as the runner beans. The blossoms are followed by flat pods that look like lima beans except that they are a deep shiny purple.
Both of these species of beans are culinary favorites in other parts of the world. Hyacinth beans are used in Indian curries, and runner beans are an English favorite. My neighbor Hilda Bridgewater has a fifty foot row of runner beans. She grew up in Yorkshire, where, she says, everyone is “quite wild about eating the immature pods, though the flowers are quite attractive.” The Dutch call it case-knife bean, the Germans feuerbohne, or fire bean, the Greeks make a bean soup honoring St. Nicholas who is said to have fed the poor with it.
If you eat either runner beans or hyacinth beans it is important to note that they can be toxic. Dry runner bean seeds contain small amounts of the lectin phytohaemagglutinin (raw mature red kidney beans contain the most) and they have to be cooked long and slow to avoid the gastrointestinal distress that can result after eating them. In the case of hyacinth beans the mature beans or dry beans contain cyanogenic glycosides, a source of cyanide, and the beans must be boiled in lots of water to eliminate this. Young pods of hyacinth beans are much less toxic, but the water in which they are boiled or steamed is best discarded. The young pods of hyacinth beans will turn green when they are cooked because the anthocyanin that gives them their color will break down in the heat revealing the underlying green of chlorophyll.
A quick internet search will readily yield recipes and instructions on how best to serve runner beans and hyacinth beans in all their stages of growth, but that is not the point here. Amidst the abundance of a backyard garden, these are beans that I am happy to leave unpicked. The whir of hummingbirds is reward enough, and the admiring comments of visitors. The mature dried seeds are easy to gather and save. And so I will be cheerfully giving them away for others to plant along with the closing line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about the spring blooming Rhodora:
“If eyes were made for seeing.
Then beauty is its own excuse for being”
Roger B. Swain