Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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

Beans -- 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.

Beans 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 unknown here.

Uncle Ezra says: "Some folks don't know beans!"

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