Glorious Diversity–A Palette of Heirloom Legumes

The desert this spring is exploding with color, its rainbow shades reminding us of the amazing diversity of life, of species, of varieties of plants in this rich Sonoran Desert! Cholla flowers themselves are a veritable palette of genetic diversity within a species and between species.

Tia Marta here to talk about the rich diversity of beans selected and cultivated over the centuries by smart Native farmers in what is now the southwest borderlands…..

Tom's Mix is a rainbow of color, flavor, nutrition, and genetic adaptations to the desert Southwest! (MABurgess photo)

Tom’s Mix is a rainbow of color, flavor, nutrition, and genetic adaptations to the desert Southwest! (MABurgess photo)

In the genetic treasure trove of the NativeSeeds/SEARCH Seed Bank, there are hundreds of varieties and landraces of common bean, runner bean, and limas that can dazzle both our eyes, tastebuds–and our souls. Their colors, theirs shapes, sizes, sculpture are miniature works of art. And inside each little bean, each variety carries a complex of genes shaped over time to fit a specific local rainfall regime, soil, daylength, temperature range, and human habits. Their genetic potential may provide us some nutritional lifeboats into the uncharted waters of climate change.  (We are in this together.)

Delectable Tom's Mix available online at NativeSeeds.org and FlordeMayoArts.com.

Delectable Tom’s Mix available online at NativeSeeds.org and FlordeMayoArts.com.

Long ago, my gardening pal and mentor Tom Swain “invented” a mix of 14 different beautiful Southwestern heirloom beans garnered from the NativeSeeds/SEARCH collection. Of course we had to call it “Tom’s Mix” (ok–“oldsters” get it). It is the most beautiful set of genetic as well as flavor jewels—truly a treasure to behold and to eat.

Many people at our Flor de Mayo booth at Sunday St Phillips Farmers Market have asked how to identify each bean in the mix. To sort them, ID each variety, and come to know them is a fun challenge.  I’d like to create a game for kids (and adults) to teach taxonomy in a cool way using them.

 

 

So, head for the NativeSeeds store or Sunday’s St Phillips market, pick up a bag of Tom’s Mix, and take the BEAN CHALLENGE!

Herewith is your KEY to unlocking some the of mystery beans of our beautiful desert region.  (They each carry stories with them–come learn more from Tia Marta at the Sunday market… see, buy, taste each beautiful bean, see which one is cooking in the solar oven, and press her to finish her bean book!)  Until then, you can feast on these gorgeous visual hints—first a feast for the eye, later for the palette–with this photographic key to the makings of Tom’s Mix:

Ed's perfect pecan pie made with Zuni beans--a healthy dessert!.

Ed’s perfect pecan pie made with Zuni beans–a healthy dessert!.

“Zuni Gold” (aka “Four Corners Gold”) was originally from the Native Zuni people of NW New Mexico, a flavor gift to the world.

“Zuni Gold” (aka “Four Corners Gold”) was originally from the Native Zuni people of NW New Mexico, a flavor gift to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Yellow-eye bean" (not related to black-eye pea) similar to Zuni Gold but with a distinctively different flavor.  It was the original Boston baked bean before coming west.  So rare it is not often used in the mix.

“Yellow-eye bean” (not related to black-eye pea) similar to Zuni Gold but with a distinctively different flavor. It was the original Boston baked bean before coming west. So rare it is not often used in the mix.

 

“Scarlet Runner” is a vining bean with brilliant red flowers that attract hummingbirds.  It is a large purplish speckled bean not to be confused with lima.

“Scarlet Runner” is a vining bean with brilliant red flowers that attract hummingbirds. It is a large purplish speckled bean not to be confused with lima. (MABurgess photo)

Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) are larger than so-called “common” beans (Phaseolus vulgaris–an insulting name for such wonderful food plants!)  Runner beans, as the name implies, are climbers as compared with bush-beans.  Their flowers are bigger and they bear huge pods.  Runner beans make a great addition to soups and stews.

Related to scarlet runner is “Aztec White Runner” or “Bordal” (aka “Mortgage Lifter”) is another vining bean with a big white flower.  It is large, plump and a little sweet.

Related to scarlet runner is “Aztec White Runner” or “Bordal” (aka “Mortgage Lifter”) is another vining bean with a big white flower. It is large, plump and a little sweet.  (MABurgess photo)

 

“Yellow Indian Woman” is the only bean in the mix not from the SW.  As legend has it, Swedes brought this bean to Native people of the northern plains.

“Yellow Indian Woman” is the only bean in the mix not from the SW. As legend has it, Swedes brought this bean to Native people of the northern plains.

“Flor de Mayo”  (Mayflower) is a favorite of traditional people from Chihuahua and Texas to southern Sonora.

“Flor de Mayo” (Mayflower) is a favorite of traditional people from Chihuahua and Texas to southern Sonora.

“Bolita” or “little bullet” is a champion of flavor and makes a delish burrito or refried bean.

“Bolita” or “little bullet” is a champion of flavor and makes a delish burrito or refried bean.

 

 

 

These three beans are of similar shape and color–though different in flavors.  It is neat to try them separately, to enjoy their individual attributes.  Watch for announcements when Native Seeds/SEARCH sponsors its Great Bean Tasting Events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Moon Bean” (also known in Colorado as “pinkeye bean”)  is a mild, tasty, versatile bean.

“Moon Bean” (also known in Colorado as “pinkeye bean”) is a mild, tasty, versatile bean.

In Tucson our culinary hero Chef Janos Wilder of the Downtown Kitchen has created the most delectable casserole using Moon Beans, chicken, and other surprise veggies.  Try this one out also in marinated salads with white Sonora wheat berries.

“Maicoba”  is named for the Pima Bajo village in Sonora where it originated.  This yellow bean goes by many monikers—sulfur bean, azufrado, canario, peruano.

“Maicoba” is named for the Pima Bajo village in Sonora where it originated. This yellow bean goes by many monikers—sulfur bean, azufrado, canario, peruano.

The versatile Maicoba makes a fabulous refried bean, a great dip, or burrito.

“Cranberry bean” refers to the flecks and strips of dark maroon or cranberry coloration on beige, not to its flavor.

“Cranberry bean” refers to the flecks and strips of dark maroon or cranberry coloration on beige, not to its flavor.

You will often see Italian recipes calling for cranberry bean.  This year’s crop of cranberry was for some weather reason a bust; let’s hope that next year it comes back strong again.  To participate, plant some locally.

“Cannellini” is an elongated white bean grown in the Four Corners for years, brought there by immigrants.

“Cannellini” is an elongated white bean grown in the Four Corners for years, brought there by immigrants.

Cannellini makes a fabulous addition to minestrone, or becomes the center of a yummy Mediterranean marinated bean salad.  A smaller, creamier bean is the “Colorado River Bean” which resembles the Mayflower bean from SeedSavers catalog.

“Colorado River bean” takes its name from the Colorado Plateau where it is grown.  This small speckled bean makes a wonderfully creamy soup.

“Colorado River bean” takes its name from the Colorado Plateau where it is grown. This small speckled bean makes a wonderfully creamy soup.

Worlds apart in flavor and size is the Christmas lima–a true lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus–like a moon).  This one is not like your average butter bean.  It is massive as beans go, rich and almost meaty–great for a vegetarian centerpiece dish.

“Christmas lima” or “Chestnut lima” is a true lima bean Phaseolus lunatus, large, flat, purple mottled, and hearty flavored.

“Christmas lima” or “Chestnut lima” is a true lima bean, large, flat, purple mottled, and hearty flavored.

 

“Aztec Black Bean” or “Black Turtle” is the traditional bean of the Nahuatl or central Mexico.

“Aztec Black Bean” or “Black Turtle” is the traditional bean of the Nahuatl or central Mexico.

 

“Anasazi Bean” is the only trademarked bean in the mix.  Original seeds of this fast-cooking bean were actually found in an ancestral Puebloan ruin in the Four Corners.

“Anasazi Bean” is the only trademarked bean in the mix. Original seeds of this fast-cooking bean were actually found in an ancestral Puebloan ruin in the Four Corners.

These two beautiful beans, Black Turtle and “Anasazi bean,” bind up the full complement of flavors in Tom’s Mix.  As individual beans, each is hard to beat flavor-wise and texture-wise.  Together, combined in our Tom’s Mix, they are a culinary delight.

Black beans are the staple of many traditional diets, from Meso-America to northern New Mexico.

The “Anasazi” is the fastest cooking and least distressing to digestion of any bean I know of.

So now are you feeling enriched by these visual legume wonders?  I hope so!  Now to come try your hand at identifying them firsthand, and to treating your taste-buds at our Flor de Mayo tent at Sunday farmers market.

Identified or not, these precious heirloom beans in Tom’s Mix make a fabulous soup that our market and online customers rave about. You can ship out this Southwest gift to all corners of the globe via paypal at http://www.flordemayoarts.com.

Tom’s Mix is so versatile—try them as a dip or as a most colorful marinated bean salad when the weather heats up. If you are inspired to assist the bean genes into the future, try your hand at growing some of the Tom’s Mix varieties this summer in your own garden.  You can learn lots more at our Seed Libraries (Pima County Public Library) and at the upcoming International Seed Library Conference to be held in Tucson in early May.

Diversity of Southwestern heirlooms in Tom's Mix

Diversity of Southwestern heirlooms in Tom’s Mix

See you Sunday at St Phillips Plaza or at the NSS Store, 3061 N Campbell. We look forward to talking heirloom beans with you!

[As for the diversity of those cholla flowers mentioned at the start….. Tia Marta will be exploring our diverse cholla flora at upcoming cholla bud harvesting workshops: Sat April 11 sponsored by NativeSeeds/SEARCH and Sat April 18 sponsored by Tohono Chul Park. Contact each for more info: http://www.nativeseeds.org and http://www.tohonochulpark.org, or call Flor de Mayo at 520-907-9471.]

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