Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat the more you’ve art in your landscape. But I’m not talkin’ pinto and navy beans, but some beautifully flowering exotic tropical "beans" that grow like crazy from spring into fall. Their lush vines boast a blend of blooms and protein-rich bean pods for bouquets and the dinner plate. All they need is full sun, soil enriched with dog food nuggets, and an ugly fence you’d love to see transformed into a lovely flowering "trellis". They love conditions here in Tampa, but I don't see why they would not grow most anywhere in summer, as even in Denver's painfully short growing season many did well for me.
Remember Scarlet Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus) from our grandma’s flower gardens? A white mailbox looks charming swathed in those emerald leaves and ruby blooms. Imagine picking and nibbling a crisp raw pod as you reach in for the daily mail! Chop them into salads and stir fry for a taste and texture you can’t buy in the produce market. And those crisp red blooms add a sweet surprise to salads! Look for them in the garden flowers section of seed displays.
The Yard Long Bean (Vigna unguiculata var. sesquipedalis) is sold in Asian veggie seed displays. A staple of Chinese cooking, this relative of the Black Eyed Pea thrives just as well in long muggy summers. Expect the lovely orchid-like flowers to quickly transform into bean pods up to 3 feet long, though they are best picked when a foot long and sweetly tender. Easy and thus great for kids to grow, they also provide newly unfolded leaves excellent when chopped into soups and stir fry for extra fiber, bright green color, and healthy nutrition.
Want to freak out friends, neighbors, passers-by and dinner guests? Grow "African Jack Beans" (Canavalia ensiformis) and watch jaws drop first when the vines rival those in ‘Jack and the Bean Stalk’, then again when monstrous bean pods form. I use mine in soups and stir fry when6- 8 inches long and crisply tender, pods and all. When they are 8-10 inches long and plump they are wonderful cooked in their jackets on a covered barbecue grille, then eaten like giant edamame soybeans a finger food, each plump seed taking much like an excellent butter bean.Think that size DOES matter? Grow African Jack Beans! I also grow the Florida native "Beach Bean" (Canavalia rosea) plus "Chinese Sword Bean" (Canavalia gladiata) for their lovely giant pods and serve them the same ways.
Prized in Filipino cuisine, the green-podded Hyacinth Bean (Dilochos lablab) is tastier and grows far more luxuriantly than the equally edible purple-podded "ornamental" kind sold in flower seed racks. If you don’t have a Filipino neighbor who can share seeds with you, look for them on-line or in the seed display in an Asian market. Lovely on a chain link fence, bedecked with flowers reminiscent of wisterias, Hyacinth Beans cover my henhouse each summer to provide shade and nutritious leaves they love to peck at and nibble. By summer you can pick the flat green pods and shuck out flat green beans that when lightly cooked taste much like edamame’ soybeans. Allowed to ripen and dry on the vines, the tan pods can be shattered to release beautiful black seeds, each with a white spot, that can be cooked like any dried bean. All summer long I treat myself to petite bouquets of the long-stemmed lavender blooms yet still end up with numbers of beans for stir fry and soups. In past years I grew the green podded type and ate them like edamame soybeans as the pods are too tough to eat whole, but in 2008 I tried the variety "Purple Moon" and sold.....wonderfully tender stringless lavender pods, both raw and cooked, and extra large beautiful flowers covering the graceful rampant vines.
How about a living "fence" that gives you privacy and puts food on the table? Yup, the summer months offer us a perfect chance to screen a hot tub or back yard from view with graceful green growth, lovely red and yellow flowers while providing a steady source of tropical "beans" savored all over the Caribbean. And when is the last time you bought a privacy fence for about $1 at a grocery store? Go straight to the ethnic foods isle where the Cuban foods are and buy a bag of dried "Gandule Beans", also called "Pigeon Peas". This tropical perennial legume is known botanically as Cajanus cajan and loves a hot humid climate yet will usually will regrow from the bottom following a freeze here in central Florida. (And if not, spend another dollar!). Just plant one bean about 1 inch deep every foot all along where you wish your "fence" to grow, and water weekly if there is no rain. While they will grow faster in improved fertile soil, gandule beans do well in most soils once the summer rains kick in.Tender young leaves may be stripped off and used in stir fries, but it is the green pods I enjoy most. Boiled in salted water for 10 minutes, then drained and cooled, they make a wonderful TV snack if shucked and eaten like the increasingly popular edamame soybeans. If you allow the pods to ripen and turn brown, they will yield new gandule beans you can cook and serve with rice. (Lots of recipes on-line!) Plus you can plant some elsewhere in your yard for a new screen to block a view. Gandule beans are also excellent soil nitrogen enrichers due to the beneficial rhizobia bacteria living in their root nodules.
Like fresh homegrown bouquets? In the morning, cut pigeon pea branches tipped with fresh yellow and red blooms that resemble sweet peas for graceful exotic arrangements. If after a year or so your gandule bean fence gets lanky, just cut it back by half when spring comes, feed the soil with manure or compost or menhaden fish meal from a feed store, and watch it regrow dense and full, bearing an extra heavy new crop of pods.
Native to India, the Velvet Bean (Mucuna pruriens) is the world's richest source of L-dopa and is being grown commercially to treat both Parkinson's and Restless Leg Syndrome. Body builders take it in capsule form to build up lean muscle mass, and studies show that men who take Velvet Bean extract daily for three weeks, then stop for three weeks, then keep on repeating the cycle, have delayed graying of hair and less body fat due to it triggering the pituitary gland producing more human growth hormone. Ayurvedic medicine has used the Velvet Bean for many centuries as a life extension aid, and as an aphrodisiac for men and women.....I can attest to that latter effect! The oddly beautiful surrealistic blooms look like wisteria on acid, and appear at the end of summer and quickly transform into the velvety pods. The wild strain has stinging orange hairs on the pods, but I got my soft velvety non-stinging form from the good permaculture folks at Echo in south Florida. I've been doing that three week cycling fairly regularly for almost 6 years now and wonder if that partly is why at 56 I still have no gray hair.
All of these various beans are easy to grow in full sun and warm weather....just scatter dog food nuggets all along a fence (a 20 lb. bag will do a 1 foot wide 20 foot long strip of soil), plus a 20 lb. bag of cheap white clay cat litter (if you have sandy soil), and 20 lbs. of alfalfa pellets from a feed store, turn them under with a shovel, plant one seed every 2 feet or so, mulch with two inches of chipped tree trimming waste or coastal hay, and water deeply weekly till the summer rains kick in. Then jump back out of their way!