Thursday, June 10, 2010

An updated version of an article I wrote for 'Florida Gardening' in 2008

Velvet Bean - Mucuna pruriens

Vigna unguiculata "Clay", an heirloom Vigna

African Jack Bean- Canavalia ensiformis

Scarlet Runner Bean- Phaseolus coccineus

While written with Florida in mind, this article references several edible legumes that will thrive where ever summers are long and hot...humid is best. Enjoy, John

Beans Galore

Beans, beans, they’re beautiful and they’re good for your heart, the more you grow and eat them the more you’ve got art in your landscape. But I’m not talkin’ pinto and navy beans, but some beautifully flowering exotic tropical "beans" that grow like crazy here 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".

But beans? Yup. 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.

Many of us think no veggies will grow in our hot muggy summers. But the Vigna family offers many that not only offer tasty "bean" pods during the sauna season (true beans are in the Phaseolus family), but also lovely flowers for dressing up mailboxes, fences and trellises. All bear tender young leaves excellent in stir fries, hail from tropical Africa and Asia and so are right at home here from late spring through early fall. What’s cool too is that bags of their seeds for planting can be found right on the grocery store shelf and in neighborhood Asian markets, giving you hundreds of seeds for about $1!

Black Eye Peas are the one (Vigna unguiculata) that we are all familiar with, a classic of southern summer gardens for two centuries now. Just buy a bag of dried ones at the store and plant one seed 1 inch deep every 3-4 inches in a row in your veggie garden, or as a decorative border around a landscape bed. You will be amazed their rate of growth and how soon you will be picking tender immature pods for stir fry or a light summer soup, or plump mature pods for shelling green black eye peas (I am usually too lazy for the latter!). I also love the shiny tender young leaves in casseroles and stir fry
That same species has many variants, like the various cow peas and white acre peas we have all savored in cans, their seeds available from mail order catalogs. Most produce bushy attractive plants bearing yellow or lavender blooms, and each offers a uniquely colored and tasting bean. An excellent source of many varieties is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at (417) 924-8917 or
Are you into Asian cuisine like me? Try the vining Vigna unguiculata subspecies sesquipedalis variants called The Yard Long Bean sold in Asian veggie seed displays and on line. Sometimes called "Noodle Bean" and a staple of Chinese cooking, this relative of the Black Eyed Pea thrives just as well in our 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. Try their fresh flowers for a colorful sweet topping for a salad.
The Mung Beans (V. mungo) we think of as "bean sprouts" can also be bought dried at an Asian market and planted, the young pods and leaves used young and tender, or let the pods ripen and turn brown to release home grown mung beans used in Indian and Asian cooking.

One especially productive Vigna is the "Red Chinese Bean" or "Adzuki Bean" (V. angularis). The tender stringless pods quickly follow the pale yellow blooms, occurring in groups of three or more, held high above the lush looking bushy plant. Buy a bag of them at an Asian grocer and plant as you would black eye peas.( If you want steady production of pods, plant a new row somewhere in your yard monthly from April through early September of any of the edible Vignas so as one crop matures and declines another takes it place.)

"Corkscrew Flower", Vigna caracalla, is grown for its heavily fragrant, twisted lavender and white blooms that resemble translucent sea shells, perfect as a conversation piece on your mailbox. Rarely seen in garden shops, it can be ordered from Logee’s Greenhouses at 1-888-330-8038 or
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 when 8-10 inches long and crisply tender, pods and all. No need to shuck them. Think that size DOES matter? Grow African Jack Beans! Same goes for their relatives Chinese Sword Bean (Canavalia gladiata) and Florida’s native Beach Bean Vine (Canavalia rosea). The seeds of all three contain low levels of cyanogenic glucosides destroyed by a few minutes of cooking. Try cooking them in their jackets on a covered grille until they are steamed through and through then pop them out like giant butter beans.

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 "my girls" with shade and nutritious leaves they love to peck at and nibble. By summer you can pick the flat green pods, boil them in salted water, 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. This year I am growing a lavender podded hybrid called ‘Purple Moon’ I chose from the great selection at:
The Velvet Bean (Mucuna pruriens) hails from India, loves Florida summers, will cover my henhouse in a month, plus yields protein rich "beans" in plump pods covered with a dark brown velvet. These beans are the world’s richest source of the L-dopa used to treat Parkinsons and Restless Leg Syndrome, and the extract is used by body builders to boost muscle mass and burn off fat without using steroids. Studies show that eating a few beans daily for three weeks, then stopping for a few weeks, back and forth, trigger the pituitary gland to produce more Human Growth Hormone to aid muscle mass and delay graying of hair plus function as a potent aphrodosiac.....I will surely attest to the latter (!!!) plus I am 56 and do not have not a single gray hair after 6 years of eating Velvet Beans medicinally. The rampant vines are also good for compost, feeding livestock (even my Golden Apple Snails I raise for their VERY tasty meat) plus the roots are a very effective nitrogen fixer for soil. I got my seeds from the wonderful folks at
All these "beans" are easy to grow....just scatter dog food nuggets all along a sunny fence (a 20 lb. bag will do 20 feet of fence, turn them under, plant one seed every 2 feet or so, and water deeply weekly till the summer rains kick in. Then jump back out of their way!
Got beans?

ECHONET 239-543-3246 fax 239-543-5317
EVERGREEN SEEDS 714-637-5769


  1. Can't find a source for the African Jack beans! Do you know where I can get some? Thanks!

  2. Hi Cora

    Yes they are very rare.....I forget where I got mine a few years back. But I now sell 10 seeds for $4 and a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope to help get them in gardens. My address is:

    John Starnes 3212 West Paxton Avenue Tampa FL 33611

  3. Thank you! Envelope is on it's way.

    I meant to tell you that I always read ALL your posts and find them soooo helpful. I'm a new gardener here in Florida so I'm finding it very challenging. But so far, all your suggestions and hints have worked for me. Look forward to learning more!

  4. Thanks Cora! I am a Florida native and had my first veggie garden here in 1967 when I was in 9th grade. I've been lucky ever since to meet many very wise gardeners who've shared with me their views and techniques. The longer I garden the more I realize how little I really know. John