Edible Beans and Peas
Nature Bulletin No. 261-A March 18, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
EDIBLE BEANS AND PEAS
-- like corn, potatoes, peanuts and squash -- were unknown in the
Old World until after Columbus discovered America. Like corn, they
had been cultivated so long and changed so much that their wild
ancestors are unknown. Today, beans rank next to the cereal grains as
human food throughout the world but, with the exception of the soy
bean which has been grown and eaten in China and Japan since ancient
times, all of them have come from seed obtained from the bean patches
of the Indians in South, Central and North America.
No other plant food is so rich in protein or so cheaply grown. Beans are
so easily carried and stored, so compact and nutritious, that they quickly
became the mainstay in the diet of all sorts of hard working people
away from regular sources of supply -- explorers, soldiers, sailors,
trappers, hunters, pioneers, miners and lumberjacks. Some kinds have
become traditional dishes such as, for exarnple, the "haricots" of the
French, the "frijoles" of the Spaniards and Mexicans, the black-eyed
"peas" of our southern states, and the baked beans in Boston on
Saturday night. Beans are easy to raise, mature quickly, and give high
yields in all except the cold countries.
and peas are closely related members of the great Pea Family.
Both are legumes, bearing their seed in pods and supporting nitrogen-
fixing bacteria on their roots. The cultivated American beans fall into
two main types: lima beans and kidney beans, Both types have 3-parted
leaves and butterfly-like flowers with five petals. Some varieties of each
type are "bush" beans and others are "pole" beans which climb by
means of twining stems and not by clinging tendrils, as do the peas.
Lima beans or butter beans, of which there are many varieties, have
broad inedible pods and were probably first grown by ancient pre-Incan
Indians of Peru. However, the Pilgrims found them being grown in New
England and mixed with fresh corn to make succotash. The slender-
podded kidney bean type is more numerous and, to name only a few,
includes kidney beans, scarlet-runner beans, red beans, black beans,
black-eyed "peas", navy beans, string beans, wax beans, pinto beans
and beans with pods a yard long. About 150 of these slender-podded
varieties are grown in America but we never see many kinds, such as
the tiny jet black and rich purple beans still grown by the Indians.
The garden pea is probably a native of western Asia but its wild
ancestor is also unknown. It has been grown in Europe since the time of
the prehistoric Swiss lake-dwellers and many varieties developed: tall,
dwarf, green-seeded, yellow-seeded, peas that must be shelled, and peas
with edible pods. Peas differ from beans in certain ways, such as the
method of germination and having several pairs of leaflets along a main
stem with one or more clinging tendrils at the tip. They were a favorite
food of the ancient Romans and -- whether fresh from the garden,
frozen or canned -- are an esteemed delicacy in America today.
A few other legumes with table qualities resembling peas and beans
have long been cultivated. Lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs
dating back to 2,200 BC, In Genesis it says that Esau sold his birthright
to Jacob for "bread and pottage of lentils". Both the French and the
Egyptian lentils have tiny pods each containing two round flattened
seeds. The common split peas or pigeon peas, yellow or green, are
similar to lentils and widely used in India and the East Indies. The
broad bean or Windsor bean is not a true bean. A native of Algeria,
formerly grown in Europe and colonial America, it is now almost
Uncle Ezra says: "Some folks don't know beans!"
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Update: June 2012