The last few years I’ve become fascinated with growing various types of heirloom pole beans. Many have interesting descriptive names like “greasy beans”, “cornfield beans” and “half-runners”. It was confusing to me at first, but I managed to learn the lingo, thanks in part to the folks at Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center who have a page that describes Bean Terminology. Most of these have been super productive in my garden, and all have been tasty in the kitchen.
Greasy beans are so named because the pods have a slick feel to them, and not the slightly “fuzzy” feel that most bean pods have. If you have the two beans together it is easy to feel the difference, and usually I can even see it just by looking at the pods. The Bertie Best Greasy Beans in the below photo are a good example of how they look. They are a bit shiny, and though it may be hard to tell in the photo it is easier when you see one in person.
Bertie Best Greasy Bean has been growing in its present form for over 100 years according to legendary bean grower Bill Best, founder of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center which specializes in heirloom varieties of beans. The bean is named after his aunt Bertie Best, and the seeds are mostly white but with a small percentage of black and brown seeds. The beans start to swell up fairly quickly, and make for a very flavorful side dish.
Half-runner beans are ones which have vines that range anythere from a few feet long to over ten feet. I’ve been growing one called Non Tough Half Runner for several years now, and despite the name they seem to vine about as much as all the other pole beans I grow. The big difference is that the pods stay tender even when the beans inside get quite big. For that matter, the pods are still tender even when they begin to dry. They do have strings though, but I’ve found it is no trouble to string them before cooking or freezing.
Cornfield bean is the name for any any climbing bean, but also ones that are traditionally trained up the corn stalks in a field of corn. Robe Mountain is one of my favorite cornfield beans, with tender pods that can get over nine inches long. The pods have strings, but it strings easily and it is the earliest of the Appalachian beans I grow, setting pods at about the same time as modern varieties like Musica and Fortex.
And speaking of strings, for me and I suspect most gardeners having strings in beans was a no-no for many years. Indeed stringless beans are still the norm, and most modern beans are stringless. However, when the original stringless trait in beans was discovered and bred into snap beans, flavor was not a big consideration and also got bred out of many of them. As for toughness, that was also bred into most modern beans to make them suitable for machine harvesting. What that means is that the beans have to be picked early, before the beans start to swell, or else the pods get too tough to eat. There are several different beans with the name Turkey Craw, but the one I am growing from Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center has especially tasty beans and pods that are tender at all stages. They are also easy to string.
In summary, the last few years I have made an attempt to grow heirloom beans that have not had the stringless or the tough genes bred into them. Many of these beans have been traded between neighbors and handed down as family heirloom varieties for many generations. They more closely resemble the beans that were likely grown by Native Americans as part of their Three Sisters triumvirate of beans, squash and corn. None of them has traded flavor or productivity for anything or anyone. For gardeners with the room to grow running beans, they can make an interesting and tasty addition to the lineup.
All of the beans mentioned here are available from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center.