Minor Botanical Mysteries

So here’s a thing I tweeted about awhile ago, but I wanted to do a full write up. It’s an interesting botanical thing I figured out about beans!

Here’s four kinds of beans. Last year, I grew three of them!

beans

The Aztec Cave Bean keeps appearing under various guises in seed catalogs. The story goes that this bean was found in a sealed clay jar in a cave during an archaeological dig in the Seventies. Carbon dated to 1500 years ago!

Thing is…nobody knows anything about this hypothetical dig. Who ran it? Where was it? There is no info. Dig on a forum and you’ll get, “Uh…maybe Berkeley?” And then I went digging around in Google Books and found a reference to this legend from the 1800s (and the author was skeptical then, too!)*

Also, the Aztec Empire flourished from the 13th to 16th century, which by my math was at most 800 years ago, so if this WAS true, it’d be a Nahuatl Cave Bean. But never mind that. Let’s just say I am Very Skeptical.

The ones I got were a lovely maroon mottled bean. It looked like they’d grow into Holstein cows or tiny paint horses. Artist representation above!

I also grew the Tarahumara Red, a rare bean variety from the high desert, grown by the Tarahumara people. It’s one of those varieties that I don’t know why they’re rare–they’re tough as nails. It produces a small maroon bean with a black ring around the hilum. (That’s the white mark on the bean, or the “eye.”) The Aztec cave bean ALSO has a black ring around the hilum, or at least the ones I got did.

So I had both these beans and I grew them and at first, all was well. Aztecs produced and produced, Tarahumara were less productive but they kept going and going and going and they grew in crappy buckets I forgot to water.

Then an odd thing happened. The Aztec cave beans…vanished. Suddenly I was harvesting nothing but solid maroon beans with black hilums.

Okay, sez I! The Aztec beans melted in the high summer heat and humidity. This was the first year I grew them, I had no idea what to expect, and some things just melt in our heat. These are obviously the Tarahumara Reds (I had planted a couple extra about midway through the season when another set of beans had choked and died.)

And then one day I harvest some beans, shell them, and out come the Mystery Beans. Maroon bean. Single white splash right where the sprout would emerge.

I stared at them for awhile.

I finally decided they had to be an Aztec cave bean that just got weird. Okay. These things happen.

I harvested a few weeks later and got dozens more.

Had I somehow made a cross-breed between my Tarahumara and my Aztecs? Beans can cross-pollinate, but they usually don’t. Even when they’re grown on the same trellis, they rarely cross, unlike peppers or squash, who will joyfully sex up the world. Beans are suspicious of other beans. Peppers would cross with pine trees if they could reach that high.

And then, in late fall, the very last round of beans, suddenly I have Aztec cave beans again. Little Holstein cow beans. AND Tarahumara Reds.

What the hell just happened?

I was baffled. I threw them all in jars and eyed them suspiciously. Had I found two beans that were star-crossed lovers and crossed easily? Were these sports? (Some beans are sold with the specific note “Throws an occasional all-black bean” and so forth.)

And then, browsing seed catalogs in December, trying to keep my spirits up, I happened on a bean collector who has been growing beans since, literally, the year I was born. His site was an obsessive catalog of hundreds of varieties. And one of them was the Jacob’s Cattle Bean.

Jacob’s Cattle Beans are an old, old variety. They range from maroon to medium tan, and they are speckled and spotted and splotched with white. It looks like an acid washed kidney bean. It was grown by the Passamaquoddy Indians of Maine, according to legend. Unlike the Aztec, they’re more…flecked, I guess? Appaloosa horses instead of paints.

What they don’t tell you, what I learned from our bean collector’s site, was that many, many spotted beans descend from Jacob’s Cattle types, and that if you grow Jacob’s Cattle in high summer temperatures, it becomes solid colored.

Now, I can’t know for sure, but I will bet you a dollar that my “Aztec Cave Bean” is a reasonably modern descendant of the Jacob’s Cattle Bean, and the high heat in North Carolina turned them solid red. Then, as the temps cooled, they got the first white splotch, and then finally reverted to their normal coloration.

“Okay,” you say, “but why do I care?”

I have no idea, honestly. It’s neat? It screwed up my counts because I kept thinking that the hot-weather Aztecs were actually Tarahumara Red, so I now have no idea what my total counts were and need to regrow both.

But anyhow, I thought it was cool that I finally got to the bottom of my mystery beans.

 

*There actually ARE a couple of vegetable varieties found from ancient dig sites–a very impressive squash was found on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. They named it the Gete-okosomin, and you can get seeds now, which I’ll try once I’ve got the Gem Squash reliable.

  • reply Affenschmidt ,

    A highly unoriginal observation: Aztec Cave Beans would be a great band name.

    • reply Anonyplgrim ,

      Now you just need to find someone to do a DNA study on these beans. That would answer your questions.

      • reply Pat ,

        Any event that concludes with “I must grow more stuff” is not a bad thing in my book.

        • reply Persis ,

          This is great! I have Jacob’s Cattle Beans from a small organic bean farm, Behr’s Beans, in Berwick, Maine thru my winter share CSA. Interesting that high heat turns them monotone. Maine doesn’t get as warm as NC in the summer.

          • reply Jenny ,

            I am a relatively new bean grower who is very confused by my scarlet runner beans — when do you harvest them? Do you wait until they dry on the vine, or when they are fat green pods? And if you harvest them when they are green, do you dry them out before storing them or can you eat them fresh? These are silly questions, but I have been getting different answers from different sources, and you seem to know what you are doing.
            Thanks.

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