Saturday, May 26, 2012

This Year's Beans

Earlier this year, I mentioned my goal to grow enough dry beans to last us through the year. I'm also a big fan of sweet snap beans, so I want plenty of snaps to eat fresh and freeze as well. (E, on the other hand, hates the buggers and refuses to touch a green bean. However, dry beans make him very happy. I do believe the man is allergic to the color green.) As is probably clear by now, I'm also in love with growing historic or unusual varieties. I want my garden to be as mixed up as I am. 

I grow beans up trellis columns I build from concrete reinforcement wire, and I try to stagger planting and varieties so I have beans coming in for months. This year, I have some perennial favorites and some new-to-me varieties, certainly more beans than I've ever grown. I don't know if I will make my self-set dry bean goal, but I know I'm going to enjoy the process of growing these lovelies.

This is a mighty seedling of a Hidatsa Shield Figure pole bean. Hidatsa Shields are listed on the Ark of Taste; they're a dry bean that are supposed to make a fantastic soup bean. I received my seeds through Rancho Gordo, where I'm part of their "Bean Buddies" program, in which home gardeners test some of their heirloom varieties in non-commercial conditions. I just planted Hidatsa Shield Figure last week, a little late for our climate, where the heat from the height of summer may slow it down.

The two pictures above are Blue Shackamaxon, a Native American heirloom from the Philadelphia area. This is my first year growing them. The beans are supposedly navy blue when shelled, drying further to black, and are good in recipes that call for black beans. In the  top picture, you can see the small mesh bags I use to protect flowers from cross-pollination. I'll save seed from those "pure" flowers so that I can maintain this seed without risk of crossing. I received this seed from a fellow Seed Savers member.
Tarahumara Dark Purple is a Native American heirloom from the Tarahumara peoples of northern Mexico. It grows very vigorously in our sandy, alkaline soil and sets copious pods all along its half-runner vines. The small green beans are tasty, but I grow them mainly for their firm, dark purple dry beans that have a distinct wine-y sweetness and are great in dishes where you'd like a bean to keep its shape. I ordered this seed three years ago from Native Seed Search and have grown it ever since.
It's my second year growing Goldmarie, a large, flat, golden, super-sweet Romano-type bean, and I am excited to have it in my garden again. The entire plant seems to have a bit of a golden flush, and the beans are wonderful, never toughening with age. I ordered this seed last year from a fellow Seed Saver member, Will Bonsall, to be exact.
This pretty, painted number is Flagg (aka Skunk or Chester) bean. The beans are large and black and white, really lovely, and are supposed to make a yummy, quick-cooking dry bean. It is my first year growing Flagg. I received it from another Seed Savers member.
This is Jeminez, a Romano type with a rosy pod. I ordered this also through Seed Savers from Will Bonsall, who said of it "I've never seen a more food-giving plant." I can already see it setting all sorts of baby beans on every flower cluster. The snap beans are supposedly sweet, meaty, and tender, and if the plant gets overwhelming, apparently the shellies of this variety are great as well. It is my first year growing Jeminez.
Oh Blue Coco, you're such a beauty, your whole vine flushed purple. I love this bean, an 18th Century French heirloom, and grow it every year. The slightly flattened dark purple pods are my favorite tasting beans, and they freeze beautifully when blanched. The dry beans (if you get overwhelmed with snaps) make tasty soups. I originally purchased this seed from Fedco Seeds.
Last week, I started planting my hot weather beans. Here is Red Noodle Yardlong, a favorite in my yard; I also planted Thai Purple Yardlong. At this point, the seedlings look identical. I've grown Red Noodle for three years and loved it each year, especially since once the deep heat comes, this baby takes off. They're delicious dry fried with chile and garlic. This year is the first for Thai Purple. I purchased both varieties from Baker Creek.
And finally, for the first time in my life, I'm trying my hand at limas. I planted these a few days ago. They're Lynch Collection Butterbean, an unusually multi-colored and multi-patterned heirloom that, according to my source (a Seed Savers member) deals well with heat and keeps producing small, good tasting beans.

I took each of these pictures this morning to give an clear illustration of what is happening in the bean bed right now. But even now, a few hours later, more flowers have opened, more butterbeans have arisen, and more tender vines have twisted. That's what happens in a bed of beans: growth and change and more growth, so fast it seems like you can see it happening in front of you.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Desert Delight Nectarine Harvest, 2012

Last year, just after my Desert Delight tree bloomed in January, the frost and wind came and bit away all the baby fruit. None of my other trees had bloomed yet, so they were all safe and sound and budded away, but the brazen Desert Delight lost every single young fruit that it had. This year, the tree bloomed and set fruit, and though we have received a near-weekly rain, we escaped any late frost. Those weekly rains that have served my other trees so well knocked the early-ripening Desert Delight on their asses. The rain, much more than what a tree named "Desert Delight" expected, has caused about half the fruits to split and mold across their bellies. These fruit ripen erratically and have sweet juicy spots, moldy gooey spots, and hard sour spots. What they don't have is flavorless spots.

This splitting has happened to about half the two dozen or so fruit. The other half are lovely, bright red, yellow-fleshed little clingstone numbers that are both sweet and super tangy. My brother always says that nectarines, though the same species as peaches, always seem to have an amped up peach flavor, a flavor that goes beyond peach, and these nectarines exemplify that for sure.

I ate the last of these today on a weeding break in the hot afternoon. The skin broke against my teeth and released that winey juice, enough to drip down my chin. I licked up dust and sweat and nectarine juice.

If the good fruits of this year's harvest demonstrate the typical fruit of this cultivar, I'm happy. This is a good nectarine, not the best, but good. It's May. I'll take some good nectarines in May to hint at the excellent nectarines that will come later this summer.

Tree details:
  • Desert Delight, a Zaiger introduction patented in 1993, has been in the ground at this property since early 2010.
  • It is on Citation rootstock.
  • It is heavily mulched, and, during the warm months, watered twice a week on a drip system.
  • This is its first crop.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Fava

Sometime in the 12th Century, so the story goes, something mysterious happened in the town of Woolpit, England, a town named after the deep pits around it, built to trap wolves: two children appeared out of one of the abandoned pits. According to the accounts of the time, the children did not speak English and they wore strange garb. They clung to each other out of fear, and at first refused food, but when they did eat, the first and only food they would accept was beans. But the strangest aspect of the two young children was their coloring—their skin was green. Of the two, the younger, the boy, died soon after discovery. The girl grew up in the town, learned English, became accustomed to English food and culture, gradually lost her green coloring, and married into a town family.

There are many different analyses of the Green Children story, ranging from an interpretation in which the characters are fictional, and the green children represent the ancient Briton communities that disappeared after the Norman Conquest, to a more prosaic one in which the children are Flemish immigrants suffering from either arsenic poisoning or malnutrition. (There are off-the-wall interpretations as well: the children have arisen from the underworld, they're actually extra terrestrials, etc.) I have no idea where the children came from, why they didn't speak English (although that Flemish story has a ring of truth to it), but I have a guess about their skin coloring. My guess, informed by Marvin Harris and Eric B. Ross's Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits, is that they weren't green when they were found, but they turned green, accidentally poisoned by the very people who were trying to save them.

For, as the stories all confirm, the first and only food the children would accept was beans, and in the 12th Century, the beans that would be in England would be fava beans, and fava beans, well, they can be poison.


Favism is a disease that only appears in people who have inherited the X-linked deficiency in enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). People who have a deficiency in G6PD have bodies that prematurely destroy their red blood cells when exposed to certain triggers; for some people with this deficiency, fava beans and fava pollen act as triggers. Exposure to fava leads to hemolysis, which if unchecked, leads to severe jaundice and eventual organ failure. This disease, favism, appears most frequently (thought not solely) in people of Asian, Mediterranean, or African descent, and the symptoms tend to be most devastating to males.

 So, the kids may not have been a vibrant green, but a much more sickly yellow-y green. And the girl, likely less affected, acclimated and began a diet less concentrated in deadly triggers. But the boy, more affected, never recovered, and died.


Pythagoras is a shady figure. The 6th Century BC Greek philosopher led a sect based on secret knowledge in southern Italy, and though, as I mentioned, the society was secret, many of his tenants were written down well after his death, leading, of course, to further confuse what may have already been muddy or muddy what may have once been clear.

One of his more unusual teachings was simple-sounding: don't touch fava beans. Some theorize he made this rule because he believed fava beans were made of the same material as humankind; thus, if the nitrogen nodules on the roots were cut, they would bleed, just as our veins would bleed. I pulled up a fava bean, shook the soil off the roots to expose the nitrogen nodules, and cut one open, just to see if it even turned red or had any reaction. Nope. Creamy white. Nothing blood-colored. Others argue he preached avoiding beans because they looked like testicles, and really, he was demanding abstinence. Indirectly according to these people, he had already tripped upon the future euphemism, "frank and beans."

There is another story that, in many sources, follows him about fava beans and several of his disciples; while being attacked by Cylon (Cylon? Those cylons are always tricky!), a Croton nobleman who rejected some of Pythagoras and his followers' political maneuvers, these disciples refused to run through the blooming fava field when trying to escape. They refused to touch the beans. They had the choice to escape to life through the field or to be outnumbered and die, and they held to the edict so powerfully they chose death over breaking it.

But, if Pythagoras's theory was not based on either an aversion to sex or an aversion to eating anything somehow seemingly meaty, and instead on an early understanding of favism, maybe the choice wasn't between life through the field or death at the sword. Maybe either choice meant the possibility of death.


The fava bean I grow in my garden is the Crimson Flowered fava, a very old variety with its own (near) death tale. I love it for its beauty and its small stature, the sweet way its flowers smell and its jewel green seeds. But I also love it because, with a backstory so dark, it is fitting that these favas have flowers that are blood red.