In Europe, this year is – wait for it – The Year Of The Bean! Yes, really!
Each year a flower and a vegetable are chosen for special attention by The Home Garden Association, a European industry organization that promotes seed-raised flowers and vegetables. So 2017 is The Year Of The Bean – as well as The Year Of The Zinnia (we’ll get to zinnias another time).
But, when I remembered that it was The Year Of The Bean - actually, it’s hard to forget, don't you think? – the first bean that came to mind was one that’s never grown for its beans.
Well, just take a look at this crimson flowered broad/fava bean (above) - it’s called, well, ‘Crimson Flowered’! Isn’t it lovely?
What we grow today is a descendant of the 'Red Blossomed' bean that was first mentioned in England in 1778, and discussed in a report from the Horticultural Society of London in 1831. The report says: “Stem about four and a half feet high. Blossoms varying, sometimes of a light red, at others of a dark crimson color. Pods short and much pointed, seldom containing more than three Beans, which are small, short, and thick, of a rusty white color when ripe. This is only fit for ornament; it is but a moderate bearer, and will not keep long after gathering, as it soon turns black.” So, the flowers were the thing, and they still are.
So here's the story: The only reason that we can grow it today is that a gardener from Kent, Miss Rhoda Cutbush, donated four seeds to Britain's Heritage Seed Library exactly two hundred years after its first mention in print. It had been handed down to her many years previously by her father, who’d been given it before the First World War, and she’d saved seed every year and kept it going. The Heritage Seed Library increased stock and passed it around.
But I’m sure that today’s ‘Crimson Flowered’ is a different plant from the one that the Horticultural Society of London reported on in 1831. Selection, conscious or not, will have taken place by a number of gardeners over the decades and things change.
Today, it grows to about 90cm/3ft, instead of the 1.4m/4.5ft noted back then. Also, the British catalogue from Mr Fothergill's describes the beans as “flavourful” and Chiltern Seeds describe it as “very tasty”. I have to say that the last time I grew it I seem to remember that “unremarkable” was a better description.
In North America The Sustainable Seed Company describes them as “much shorter” than most other fava beans (Not in my experience) and Heritage Harvest describe them as “tasty”.
But there’s no doubt that this is a lovely thing and I’ll be growing it again this year – and will report on the flavor of the beans, and the height of the plants. And be prepared for more occasional bean-related (and zinnia-related) Year Of posts later this year.