Favas and soybeans and snow peas, oh my!

This is your Round Up the Beans and Peas post – a quick overview of the food plants we’re emphasizing this year, and how they fit together taxonomically and geographically. You may think taxonomy is boring (it’s not!) but getting a sense of vegetables’ family trees helps you with planning seed-saving – which plants will cross with each other and which won’t? – and understanding degrees of susceptibility to pests and diseases.

So let’s start at the top: all beans and peas are members of the family Fabaceae, which you’ll also see called Leguminosae. The latter sounds familiar because all these plants are also called legumes. Fabaceae is a huge family containing a lot of edible and inedible plants, most of which fall outside our bean and pea world. Just to name a few: alfalfa, peanuts, indigo, lupins, carob, tamarind, clover, mimosa, locust, and laburnum are all part of this clan.

So let’s toss most of those aside for the moment. “Bean” and “pea” are still pretty flexible terms, and generally refer to lots of related plant genera that produce edible seeds inside pods. You know it when you see it, I guess. 🙂 So what beans and peas might we be growing to celebrate this 2015 Grow It Eat It year?

Borlotto beans

First, beans from the wonderful Phaseolus genus. These are the beans native to the Americas, including the common bean, P. vulgaris, which can be grown either to eat the entire pod while green (or another color) or to harvest the seeds when fresh (shelling beans) or dry. Green beans, filet beans, flat-podded Romano beans, cool-looking purple pole beans, canned black or kidney beans, pages of crazy-looking dry beans in seed catalogs: all of those are P. vulgaris.

Runner bean

Then there are runner beans, P. coccineus, grown mainly for their lovely flowers but quite edible; P. lunatus or lima beans, and several other edible species as well.

But beans don’t just belong to the Americas; they’re native to places all over the world. Old World beans include those in the genera Vicia (V. faba, the fava or broad bean, the source of the family’s Latin name), Vigna (cowpeas, yardlong beans, moth beans, azuki beans, mung beans, and others), Cicer (chickpeas), Glycine (soybeans), Lens (lentils), and many more.

Hyacinth bean

One of the prettiest Old World beans is the hyacinth bean, Lablab purpureus, which produces purple beans and lovely lavender flowers on long vines. Harvest flowers, leaves, and immature beans from this plant for your meals! You can get both beauty and nutrition from many members of the bean family.

Snow peas

We’ll also be growing and reporting on lots of peas this year. By “pea” we mean mostly the species Pisum sativum, although there are other plants in the legume family that can be called peas.

Garden peas are usually divided into three types: snow peas, which are eaten as flat pods before the seeds develop much; snap peas, edible-podded with the seeds swollen inside; and shelling peas, which you take out of the pod before eating. They are cool-season plants, best grown in the spring and fall. (Fava beans also prefer cool weather, but most beans can’t tolerate chilly temperatures and are grown in the summer.)

Most peas and beans have similar-shaped and usually quite lovely flowers (resembling those of their relatives, the non-edible ornamental sweet pea). Here are a trio of leguminous flowers: a purple-flowered pea, a cowpea, and a peanut. Pretty enough for the flowerbed, but also delicious for your dinner.

Pea (by Nancy Taylor Robson)
Cowpea (by Darlene Nicholson)

Peanut (by Darlene Nicholson)

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