Southern Appalachian Heirloom Bean Terminology
It is common to hear "old timers" speak of people who "don't know beans" about a particular subject. That means they know very little about what they are talking about. Since gardening is not a part of the lifestyle of many people today, we increasingly also have a problem of people "not knowing beans about beans." These definitions are put forth to inform people who don't know much about beans and to assist them in buying bean seeds for their gardens or purchasing fresh beans from growers or other sellers of beans. (It is a sign of the times that most of this information was common knowledge only fifty years ago.)
Bush or Bunch Beans-There are very few heirloom bunch beans in the Southern Appalachians, but there are some quite good ones. Several are fall beans and have strings while a few are stringless. As a general rule, bush beans have tougher hulls than cornfield beans which lessens their desirability. They also produce far fewer beans which makes them less attractive to growers with limited space. Depending on variety, they can be broken and cooked when full or while pods are still tender if they are varieties which become tough when full. Or, as with cornfield beans, they can eaten as shelly or dry beans as well. Most people feel that stringless beans have less flavor than ones that require stringing.
Butter Beans-Butter beans, very common in the deep South, are also grown extensively in the Southern Appalachians as well. They are usually somewhat smaller than their cousins, the Lima Beans, but are very colorful. They must be shelled out for eating, either as shelly beans or later as dry beans. Many families grow at least one variety of butter beans.
Cornfield Beans-Any climbing bean. Corn patches traditionally served as the poles which beans used for climbing.
Crease Back Beans-A type of heirloom bean that has a crease in the outer portion of the bean hull. They are sometimes called creasy beans (not to be confused with greasy beans).
Cut-Short Beans-A type of bean where the seeds outgrow the hulls and lock the developing seeds against one another. This makes them appear square, rectangular, triangular, or even trapezoidal in form. Cut-shorts are in high demand by traditional growers because of their high protein content. They are sometimes called bust-out beans because the dried hulls will often split apart vigorously after the bean pods have dried out and then become wet again by rain or even a heavy dew. This is nature's way of scattering seeds for the upcoming season.
Dry Beans-Any bean can be a dry bean since the term refers to the dry seeds of beans. Beans can be allowed to dry while in the hull or shelled out as shelly beans and then allowed to dry while spread out on a flat surface. If the weather threatens, many gardeners will pick their beans while still in the shelly stage rather than take a chance on the hulls becoming discolored which might also discolored the seeds. Dry beans are typically rehydrated prior to cooking by soaking overnight or longer, sometimes pouring the water off several times before cooking them.
Fall or October Beans-These are beans which are typically planted later than other cornfield beans and which mature near the time the first frost is scheduled. Typically they have large seeds and sometimes have stringless hulls. They are often somewhat tougher than other heirloom beans which typically remain tender all the way to the shelly stage and beyond. They can be eaten as green beans, as shelly beans, or as dry beans and many families always plant at least one fall bean. There are also many varieties of bush fall beans.
Full Beans-This is a term used to describe a bean where the seed is fully mature within the hull and the bean is ready to harvest. Heirloom beans are traditionally harvested at the full stage whether they are to be used fresh, canned, pickled or making leather britches
Greasy Beans-A name given to many heirloom bean varieties when the pods are slick and without the tight-knit fuzz of other beans. The slickness makes them appear to be greasy. Greasy beans are widely thought to be the highest quality beans and are by far the highest priced, bringing two to ten times as much as other beans. Most greasy bean varieties are found in Western North Carolina and Eastern Kentucky but are spreading rapidly to other areas through farmers' markets and heirloom seed outlets. Greasy cut-shorts are in very high demand.
Half-Runner Beans-This is a term given to many varieties of beans where the runner is roughly from three to ten feet long. It might be more accurate to say that there are quarter runner beans, half-runner beans and full runner beans with full runner beans climbing to twenty feet or more. Half-runners are very popular in the southern mountains and this led to commercial seed companies starting to produce and sell seeds. This further led to the tough gene being implanted in most commercial half-runners and much unhappiness among traditional half-runner enthusiasts who want their beans to be both full and tender. At this time many people are trying to locate and save the traditional half runners which have never been "improved" by making them tough for mechanical harvest.
Leather Britches-Leather britches, also called shucky beans, shuck beans, and in some areas, fodder beans, are made from full green beans which have been strung, broken into pieces, and then dried. Traditionally they are dried by running a needle and thread through each piece and hanging them up in long strings behind a wood cook stove to dry out as quickly as possible. They can also be dried by spreading them out in a green house on bed sheets, newspapers, or window screens. Still another way of drying them is putting them on window screens on a tin roof and bringing them in at night, or even putting them in a junk car with windows rolled up on sunny days. Once eaten almost every day during winter and spring, they are now served mostly on special days such as family reunions, weddings, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and other holidays. Drying beans is the oldest way of preserving them and still very effective. Properly dried and cooked, they are very delicious.
Pink Tip Beans-There are many varieties of pink tip beans. The term pink tip refers to the tip of the bean becoming pink in color as the bean becomes full. The tip becoming pink also indicates that the bean is ready to be picked for eating fresh, canning, or making leather britches. Seeds of pink tip varieties can be white, black, brown, tan, striped, mottled, or speckled, depending on variety.
Pole Beans-Same as cornfield beans. When some gardeners stopped growing corn in their gardens, poles often substituted for corn stalks. They are often used in teepee style to give stability. More recently poles have given way to trellises which give more room and more sunshine to the bean vines. They can also be made stronger to survive better in windy weather.
Seed Colors-Heirloom bean seeds come in many colors: They can be solid red, white, black, blue, purple, brown, tan, pink, beige, and other colors. They can be speckled with any number of colors of specks with contrasting background colors. They can be striped with the stripes being of many colors and also have many background colors such as black on white or dark brown on tan. And they can be mottled which is when there is a combination of specks, stripes, and smudges. Some are solid in color except for the eyes which are of a different color. Others are mostly of one color with smudges of another color in random patterns, all within the same hull. One bean with striking colors is the Turkey Craw bean which is tan on one end, buff on the other, and speckled in between. Some people are so enthusiastic about colored beans that they use them to create jewelry.
Seed Shapes-Seed shapes can range from near perfectly round to oblong and nearly flat. Most are oval and elongated. Cut-short varieties have varied shapes with beans within a single hull being of many shapes because of the pressure of the seeds against one another within the hull during the growth period.
Shelly Beans-This term refers to a bean shelled from a mature full bean before the hull and seed dry out. The beans are then cooked without the need for rehydration as would be the case with dry beans. Beans can also be frozen at the shelly stage and cooked later as one would cook the freshly shelled beans. Shelly beans are very popular with many old time gardeners and others who knew them as children.
Snap Beans-At one time most any bean picked green for eating fresh or drying would be called a snap bean since, after being strung, they would snap or break quickly and cleanly. With most commercial beans now having been bred to be tough and stringless to withstand mechanical harvesting without breaking, the term snap bean is rarely used since the modern bean doesn't snap or break cleanly. This is also why so many are now canned and cooked as whole beans before the seed begins to develop. However, most heirloom beans picked at the green stage, even when full, are still snap beans.
Soldier Beans-Having a crop of beans where the beans line up on the bean stem in formation is a mark of having a good bean crop. When the beans are lined up one by one or two by two until the stem contains six to twelve beans, picking them is easy and they can be picked a handful at a time. Such beans are sometimes called soldier beans. The number of beans per stem is often limited by weather conditions, and too much heat will result in a lot of beans dropping off shortly after the bloom stage. At the same time, individual vines under good conditions may have one-hundred or more bean pods and seven to eight hundred seeds.
String Beans-Most heirloom beans are string beans. This means that they have at least one string per side while some have two on the inner section-one on each half, making three strings altogether but still easily removed. These strings have to be removed prior to cooking or drying. Exceptions to this rule are some varieties of October/fall beans. Many people, especially those who use beans as a principal part of their diet, won't plant or purchase beans that do not have strings since they consider them to be of poor quality, both in texture and in flavor.
Stringless Beans-Most beans produced by modern plant breeding and most sold in commercial catalogues are stringless beans. The down side of stringless is toughness. This is why commercial bean customers are advised to "Pick while young and tender." or "Don't let lumps (seeds) appear in your beans." or "Our beans are grass-like." Stringless beans typically have to be harvested before the protein (seed) appears.
Variants-Beans often mutate or cross and then grow back true to the new form. Variant is a word often used to characterize the new bean. Most such beans are then sold or distributed as a variant of the bean from which they mutated. However, within a few years, such beans usually assume their own names and have identities completely separate from the original parent bean. In the meantime, variants might even have their own variants. This is why there are so many heirloom bean varieties.
Wax Beans-A type of bean, usually yellow or light colored in appearance, which has a hull somewhat thicker than other cornfield beans and which has a waxy feel to the touch. It is very often used in three-bean salads. This is a popular heirloom bean in some areas, not very well known in others, and virtually unknown in still other areas.
As heirloom beans continue to make a comeback in gardens, restaurants, and the market place, it will again be necessary to be able to identify them by type. An individual variety can be a combination of types. For example, a variety can be a long speckled greasy cut-short cornfield bean or a large, multi-colored, bush, butter bean.
Those who have never eaten heirloom beans are in for a treat, as more and more people are finding out, especially as they are becoming more available at farmers' markets and as more people are growing them in their gardens.