The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Heirloom plants’ category

Conti’s Marconi Rampicante Romano Bean

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

The name is musical and surely doesn’t sound like a Vermont heirloom bean, but indeed it is, with a history approaching 100 years of being grown in Barre. It just goes to show that there really was some cultural diversity in Vermont in the 20th century, even though, at least when I was growing up, cultural diversity was not much discussed or encouraged.

pods of conti's marconi bean

I received this seed from Alan LePage, a market gardener in Barre, who received it from one of his neighbors, Constantino “Stan” Conti. Stan’s parents brought the seed with them to Barre sometime between 1914 and the mid 1920s when they emigrated from the stone-quarrying village of Lettommanoppello, in eastern central Italy, to live in the granite-quarrying town of Barre, central Vermont.

“Rampicante” is Italian for “climbing” and this is a rampantly climbing pole bean for sure. I’ve had some jump their 10 foot poles and climb into an apple tree. This vigor extends to their pod production as well – the flat Romano pods average 10 inches long at maturity, and if kept picked it will keep bearing until the frosts come. But, what is amazing about this bean is the superb flavor and crisp texture, even when the pods reach 10 inches and more. I can understand why the Contis brought the seed with them and continued to grow it in Barre all those years.

 x

Conti’s Marconi Romano behind some “wild” (non-bulbing) perennial fennel.

The “Marconi” part of this bean’s name was probably given as a tribute to Guglielmo Marconi, an inventor known as the “father of radio.” He was evidently widely celebrated in Italy with many streets in towns and cities all over the country named after him. There is a Marconi sweet pepper, and a quick internet search reveals Supermarconi Romano pole beans, Supernano Marconi Gold, White-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans, and Black-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans being offered by seed vendors. If anyone knows anything for sure about the history of "Marconi" beans in Italy, I’d love to hear about it.

I find it interesting that there are no Romano beans, or anything resembling them, listed in The Beans of New York. Published in 1931, Beans of NY was part of a WPA project to catalog vegetable varieties known in the Northeastern US at the time, and it’s pretty thorough. I’m sure there were many other folks besides the Conti family who brought Romano-type bean seed with them from Italy when they came to the US in the early 20th century, but evidently these beans were not well known outside the Italian-American community.

 x x

Romano beans as a category are snap beans, stringless, with flat, wide succulent pods. They are great examples of the plant breeding proficiency of Italian gardeners and farmers. Consider that many vegetables now considered quintessentially Italian – tomatoes, beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), peppers, and corn – had their origins in the New World and were unknown in Italy until the 16th century

 x

The seeds

While its culinary aspects are excellent, for a bean, Conti’s is a bit of a nuisance to get seeds from. What makes it so tasty – the pods’ ability to stay tender and crisp – means that the pods are not inclined to dry down well and protect the seeds from mold at the end of the season. Plus, the seeds are thin-skinned and prone to splitting open in the drying process. Our autumns tend to be cool and damp, so the pods with mature seeds have to be brought inside and dried with gentle applied heat. I hang them in net bags near our wood furnace, and turn them daily. The extra attention is well worth it. This is one of the finest tasting green beans you’ll ever come across.

Everything you ever wanted to know about pole beans

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012


Here’s an article I wrote that appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Permaculture Activist, under the title “The Vagaries of Phaseolus.” (Umm, not my title, but whatever..)

Passumpsic Jerusalem artichokes

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Passumpsic blooming

I brake for Jerusalem artichokes (and you should, too).

I don’t recommend car window botanizing for drivers, but it’s a fine sport for passengers, and can yield treasure. That’s what I was up to in the early 1980s when one day, on RT 5 as we passed a local burger and fries place, I spotted a small patch of Jerusalem artichokes just off the edge of the big gravel parking lot. I later returned under cover of darkness with folding shovel and bucket to pilfer a few for planting.
I now have a big fine patch of them, which is a good thing because the burger joint parking lot became a used car dealership, totally paved over, and there’s nary a sunchoke to be seen on the banks of the Passumpsic River. RT 5 between St. Johnsbury and St. Johnsbury Center has been heavily strip developed.

Jerusalem artichokes

So, how did they get to the banks of the Passumpsic River? Jerusalem artichokes, helianthus tuberosus, are closely related to the common sunflower, and were originally domesticated by Native Americans in the Midwest of the USA, where they grow “wild”. The thing is, here in our short growing season, they barely have a chance to flower before hard frosts, so they never set seed. Thus, my conclusion is, any plants found in our area were originally planted from tubers by humans, especially as far up in the watershed as we are.

The odd name “Jerusalem artichoke” is a corruption of the Italian “girasol” which means “turns toward the sun.” Jerusalem artichokes were brought to Europe and appreciated there both as livestock fodder (pigs adore them) and as famine food. They saved many people in France from starvation during World War II.

However, the Europeans who came to this country had little respect for this plant. They much preferred potatoes. There was also a cultural issue, especially in our area, because this plant was associated with Native Americans. In living memory, even Abenaki descendents here would shun anything that might betray “indian-ness”, and for good reason. They were targets of a state eugenics program in the 1930s, which itself was a crescendo of strong racial prejudice that came with the English-dominated European settlement of northern Vermont.

I seriously doubt that the patch I found above St. J. was planted by anyone in the last hundred and fifty years or so. I believe it was a remnant of a Cowas (the local Abenaki band) river bank garden. I have named this variety Passumpsic after the river, whose name means “clear flowing water.”

The tubers of Passumpsic

The tubers of Passumpsic Jerusalem artichoke.

Passumpsic is a very good quality Jerusalem artichoke. It is long and smooth, and easy to clean, unlike the knobby types that are more common. My favorite culinary use for them is in kimchee – they are really delicious lacto-fermented: nice and crisp. They are perennial and can be left in place and dug up as needed whenever the ground is not frozen, and they’re at their best in the late fall and early spring. If given a good sunny position and decent soil, they will thrive. However, I do not allow them in the garden proper. They have their own area off to the side, with recyled metal roofing mulch between them and the garden beds. They are definitely invasive in a garden situation. They need to be managed ruthlessly once established if you want to continue to grow other plants as well, although I’ve heard that if you put pigs on them, the pigs will devour every last one.

Jerusalem artichokes in their own patch

Note the metal mulch. It’s too narrow and is being replaced with wider sheets to be more effective at keeping them in their place.

So, if you happen to be in any of Vermont or New Hampshire’s river valleys, keep an eye out for the tell-tale tall yellow fall flowers, or the clusters of tall dry grey stalks from the previous year’s growth. You just might be able to rescue a Native American heirloom plant.

Bergeron Fava Bean

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Here’s quite an unusual heirloom for northern New England – vica fava, also known as broad bean and horse bean. This is a different species than our more familiar snap and dry beans, phaseolus vulgaris, which have their origins here in the western hemisphere.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Favas are one of the oldest domesticated food plants, with origins in the Mediterranean region. They are quite widely grown and eaten elsewhere in the world, but are not very well known here.

I received this in the 1980s from Annette Bergeron, who, with her sister, left their family farm in Quebec to marry two brothers in West Burke, Vermont probably in the 1940s. Hence, I gave it her maiden name. She said in Quebec they called them “Monkey Beans” and in some years, when they could not afford to buy coffee, they would roast the favas and grind them up for a coffee substitute.

As an aside, I used to have a bean (phaseolus vulgaris – it was a bush dry bean) called Quebec Coffee (aka Canada Dot Eye), which makes me wonder if it was a common practice in Quebec to roast and grind various beans to make their hot beverages. If anyone knows anything about this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, most likely these favas were brought over from France to Quebec.

It took me quite a while to get what they were all about. For years, I gave them prime real estate for phaseolus vulgaris – sunny, sandy well drained soil – and I was barely able to keep them alive. They would get totally covered with aphids, and have very few flowers, and hence very few beans. They were miserable, but I stubbornly kept them going, motivated by sentiment alone.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Finally, I got decent information about their cultivation (Thankyou Alan LePage – see “Radio Talk Show for Gardeners” at right). Favas, unlike phaseolus vulgaris beans, like cool and moist conditions (they are grown in the winter in the Mediterranean). This makes them quite valuable to me, because a large portion of my gardens are on the wet and clay-ey end of the spectrum. Heavy wet soil is no good for ants, so the aphid problem is nearly eliminated by growing favas in the wetter spots.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Here on the edge of zone 3 and 4, favas need to be sown absolutely as early as the ground can be worked so that they can set pods before summer’s heat (we sometimes do actually have hot weather in the summer, though sometimes not). I haven’t tried fall planting them yet, but that’s a possibility when I get to a point where I have plenty of seed to fool around with. Overwintering’s risky with our voracious mice and voles.

Bergeron is not a particulary early-maturing fava, and I can’t really say how it compares in other ways to other fava varieties. It’s the only fava I have any significant experience with. Favas self pollinate but are also insect pollinated, and very attractive to pollinators; so isolation is required to maintain the variety.

green shell stage

And so, what can you do with them, you may well be wondering. Check out Wikipedia and you’ll find all kinds of culinary suggestions. Favas are very delicious at the green shell stage braised, steamed or sauteed. I haven’t yet tried them as a substitute for chick peas in hummus, but that’s another way folks use them. As a dried bean, they have a tough skin, some varieties more so than others, so sometimes it is necessary to remove the skins before cooking or serving. I’ve used Bergeron either way – at the green shell stage the skin is usually tender enough to leave on.

Favas sprouts

I learned about sprouting the dried beans before cooking from an Egyptian garden blogger, and I really like them that way, braised with onion or garlic and simmered until tender. The skins come off the sprouted beans easily. In Egypt they are evidently widely eaten for breakfast.

Also, the young leaves are very good as braised greens, so I plant the favas thickly and harvest the thinnings, which are very welcome in early spring. Note the sticks in the photo below laid out to keep the vole patrol (2 cats) from digging up the newly planted bed…

Favas for greens

Perennial vegetables: Scott Nearing’s onions

Friday, July 17th, 2009

I never met Scott Nearing, though Helen used to stop by my first place of employment, Hatch’s, with boxes of books for sale. Hatch’s was one of the very first natural foods stores in the US, founded in the 1950s in St. Johnsbury VT, of all places. Hatch’s is a novel-length story in itself, and yes, we’re talking about the “Living the Good Life” Nearings.

bed of egyptian onions

Nearing’s Egyptian Onions, first of June

These perennial Egyptian onions came to me in the 80s, second-hand from Scott via Claire Van Vliet of Newark VT. They’re great plants with a great provenance. They are totally winter hardy without cover here and are right out there with green garlic, pushing out green shoots through the retreating snow in the spring.

egyptian onion bulbils

I snap individual green onions off the cluster at the base for very nice scallions through mid June. At that point the stalks get tough as they form top-sets, and start "walking," hence the other name this type of onion is known by – walking onions. Bulbils form at the top of the stalk and their weight pulls them down to the ground a couple of feet away from the parent plant. The bulbils even form bulbils, which in turn take another step away. The sprouting bulbils are fine mini scallions, so we can actually get green onions from these nearly any time of the year. The greens stand up well to freezing and thawing outside.

bulbilsbulbils

Are you ready bulbs? Start walking!

Egyptian Onions are the same species (allium cepa) as the common onion, and further classified in the group proliferum (multiplier or topset). The flowers are few and inconspicuous, and I’ve never seen them form seed, just bulbils. The bulbs at the base divide rather than bulking up to form a bulb of any culinary interest. They are all about green onions, and they do that very well. They survive harsh winters here with no protection, and even years of gardener neglect.

I have read about drying the bulbils to take indoors and force for scallions during the winter. The little in-ground bulbs don’t keep well if dug up, but supposedly the bulbils do. I’ve not done this yet, but it sounds like a good idea and I’ll try a few this year. I’ve found it difficult to catch the bulbil clusters before they start sprouting/walking. These guys are fast out of the gate! Sprinting onions?

downy mildew strikes

A couple of years ago, the patch was being strangled by witch grass. I very thoroughly cleaned out and fortified the bed with some sand for better drainage, and the usual laying on of well finished compost. They responded very well, and were looking and tasting gorgeous in June 2008. Then, seemingly, disaster struck. At the beginning of July 2008 the stalks started to mold, downy mildew to be exact. I decided not to panic and did nothing. The mildew seems to mainly attack the scapes, and it does really wipe them out – not a pretty sight; but, the scapes are at the end of their life cycle anyway, which is probably why they are so susceptible. The new bulbils aren’t as much affected. Even though the tops of the older plants died to the ground last year, they divided and sent up healthy new scallions for the fall and winter.

Downly mildew thrives in cold and wet conditions. Summer 2008 was ridiculously cold and wet here, and so far summer 2009 has been about the same, with a reprise of the fungus attack.

downy mildew strikes

I could dust with sulfur, or try to trim off affected foliage, but this would be a large task. I have an ongoing onion trial/breeding project and there are about 12 different varieties out in the gardens right now. None are as severely affected as the Egyptians, but the fungus is present everywhere. I guess this is a good opportunity to observe and cull the experimental onions for fungus resistance. Anyway, I won’t give up Scott Nearing’s onions, even if they may be fungus vectors for the others. They really are an excellent source of green onions for home gardeners. We’ll just call my project “the Extreme Gardener Onion Torture Test.”

Wild salsify knocking on the garden door

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Last July, in a cluster of kale, parsnip, chamomile and beetberry volunteers I had left growing in the compost area, I was suddenly confronted with a familiar and unmistakeable seed head – salsify! Now I have not grown (nor seen) salsify in the gardens in more than 20 years, and never noticed it “in the wild” here in northern Vermont. I thought that this must have been the result of getting rid of some of the really old stuff in our seed collection, hence the plant’s proximity to the compost pile. However, that didn’t really make sense because salsify seed is supposed to be very short-lived, and I tend to hang on to seed way too long. I dutifully collected the seed last summer, and never got around to planting it.

summer 2008

Mysterious salsify volunteers rescued from the compost staging area.

I wasn’t very knocked out by salsify root when we grew it in the past, and after a few seasons didn’t bother with it. I never thought to try eating the greens, though I should have guessed that they might be worth while. The deer seemed to prefer salsify to all of the other bounties of our garden, and would consistently eat the plants to the ground.

Several weeks ago, in the spot in the compost area where I had collected seed last year, I was scorching the earth with the flame weeder and just in time recognized the foliage of a handful of salsify plants. I certainly would not have recognized them if I hadn’t known they might be there, because the leaves look like some kind of thick grass. Anyway, I can take a hint, so I dug them up and gave them their own spot in a proper garden bed.

summer 2008

Shortly after that, Mr. H at Subsistence Pattern did a great post about salsify and scorzonera, which got me more enthusiastic about giving salsify another try, and raised the question of what sort of salsify this might indeed be.

Then, last week, I was scything one of our little meadows, getting to the end of a big patch of buttercups in bloom, and buttercup, buttercup, bu..?!? Once again, I was brought up short on one of my (almost) ruthless missions of herbicide by… salsify. It just happened to be flowering and open, which was very fortuitous for it, because the flowers are only open a couple of hours each day and most likely I would have mowed it down if I hadn’t been piqued by the weird buttercups.

So, part of the mystery is solved. It’s a case of tragopogon pratensis, meadow salsify, and not t. porrifolius, the more common garden salsify (what I had grown before), which has purple flowers. All the "wild" salsifies in North America are originally from Europe and Asia, and are escapees from cultivation. Now, I have been a student of the local flora for more than 40 years, and have never come across salsify in the wild. I am wondering whether it’s a new-comer to the neighborhood, or whether I just didn’t notice it before. It would be easy to miss.

summer 2008

At any rate, we’ll have another go. Any early spring greens are valuable to us, and I may not have given the roots a fair culinary trial in the first go-round. I’m reading now that the roots should be cooked with their skins on for flavor, then the skins removed before eating. Any body know about this?

In praise of an outlaw, hesperis matronalis; or, if you can’t beat it, eat it

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

hesperis in the garden

Dame’s Rocket is considered invasive and is illegal to cultivate in three states. Fortunately, Vermont is not one of them, because hesperis matronalis is, in my humble opinion, a very useful and important plant in a cold climate permaculture scheme. Rocket is fairly well known as an ornamental, and is a survivor (and, yes, escapee) of long abandoned flower gardens. It is a crucifer, a member of the mustard family, but few gardeners realize that it is an edible cousin of those nutritional powerhouses kale, broccoli, and cabbage.

Over wintered hesperisSpring greens

Rocket is reputed to sometimes be a short-lived perennial, but is mainly biennial. What I really like about it is that its foliage survives winter well with no protection, lots better than kale leaves do for me. This makes it one of the very first sources of spring greens available to us. As soon as the snow melts, you can push aside the tattered old leaves and find tender green shoots hiding beneath. All through spring, we pinch off tender new leaves, shoots, and unopened flower buds for salad; and in June the blooms are fine garnishes as well, not to mention fragrant cut flowers.

Rocket blooming

Herbal authority Maude Grieve lists it as antiscorbutic, which implies that it is very high in vitamin C. The leaves have a slightly acrid after taste, that may be off putting for some, but I find it pleasant. It mixes well with other salad greens, but I think the trick is, as with so many greens, to harvest only tender new growth.

Rocket is a managed volunteer in our gardens. Its growth cycle is easy to integrate with vegetable plantings. We leave a few first year seedlings growing here and there around the garden when weeding. They take very little space the first year, and in the spring occupy what would otherwise be empty space. (The tender weedlings are also good in salad.) Rocket begins flowering just as we get past any likelihood of frost, and when the space is needed for frost tender plants. By that time it not as useful for greens, so a few very robust plants are chosen for seed and staked up. The photo at left shows the nearly mature seed pods on a staked plant. The rest of the plants throughout the gardens are pulled as the space they occupy is readied for planting other things, though some plants get to linger past blooming to ensure maximum pollination of the plants that will be left to bear seed.

And why, you may wonder, would anyone fuss about seed from an invasive weedy plant? Well, copious seed production is what makes hesperis matronalis a pest, but the seed happens to be fine for sprouting. It is a little sharp in flavor, but mixes well with milder sprouts, and other salad elements. For sprouting, you don’t even have to bother to clean the seed thoroughly, you can just float off the trash as you make the sprouts.

Outlaw, maybe, but I think she’s a classy dame nonetheless!

The unScientific American on heirloom tomatoes

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

In which the Extreme Gardener’s buttons get pushed…

How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes

The product of archaic breeding strategies, heirloom tomatoes are hardly diverse and are no more “natural” than grocery-store varieties. New studies promise to restore their lost, healthy genes ….by Brendan Borrell

Famous for their taste, color and, well, homeliness, heirloom tomatoes tug at the heartstrings of gardeners and advocates of locally grown foods. The tomato aficionado might conclude that, given the immense varieties—which go by such fanciful names as Aunt Gertie’s Gold and the Green Zebra—heirlooms must have a more diverse and superior set of genes than their grocery store cousins, those run-of-the-mill hybrid varieties such as beefsteak, cherry and plum.

No matter how you slice it, however, their seeming diversity is only skin-deep: heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred—the defective product of breeding experiments that began during the Enlightenment and exploded thanks to enthusiastic backyard gardeners from Victorian England to Depression-era West Virginia. Heirlooms are the tomato equivalent of the pug—that “purebred” dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath.

read the full article at the Scientific American.

Whose toady are you Borrell?

First of all, clarify your use of the term “heirloom” tomatoes. The statement “heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred…” is about as scientific as saying “Americans are obese.”

Are you trying to say that open pollinated tomato varieties are universally inferior to hybrid and genetically modified varieties?

And, what do you mean by “archaic breeding strategies?” Your pug analogy could be relevant to particular open pollinated or heirloom tomato varieties, but once again, it’s a foolish statement applied to the broad category, as is stating that heirlooms typically bear only 2 fruits per plant. It sounds to me like you are using the Brandywine tomato as a representative of all heirloom tomatoes. That’s not good science.

Open pollinated and heirloom tomatoes have come through the hands of thousands of breeders, who run the gamut from backyard gardeners to those who derive a salary from breeding plants, and the quality of their work is diverse, reflecting diverse needs, goals, abilities and intentions.

I have been involved in growing (and seed saving) open pollinated and heirloom vegetables for 30 years, and this includes tomato varieties of fine culinary quality and excellent plant vigor. I am not a luddite, and I don’t have romantic delusions about heirloom varieties. There are robust heirlooms and yes, there are feeble heirlooms.

It’s a good idea to try to improve disease resistance using some of the more primitive lycopersicon species. However, I do not care to have Monsanto deciding for me what constitutes a better tomato, and I certainly don’t want to have to buy seed from them every season in order to grow tomatoes. We grow all the tomatoes we eat all year, and have very specific needs and preferences that may not be relevant to anyone else. Our varieties are adapted to us and our garden in our little corner of the planet.

The Seminis/Monsanto toadies may, with their manipulations, increase genetic diversity within some tomato plants. What scares me is the lack of diversity of people doing plant breeding. That this activity is becoming increasingly centralized should set off alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about the future of food and who will control access to it.

Littleton bean – one of our own Three Sisters

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Littleton pole bean, dried

Here’s yet another horticultural bean from my neck of the woods. Thankfully, I have not heard or seen it referred to as a Cranberry bean. This is one I acquired in 1985 by participating in Seed Savers Exchange growers’ network. BN-17, as it is also known, was originally put into SSE by Ernest Dana of Etna, New Hampshire.

The name refers to Littleton NH. Plant breeders extraordinaire Elwin Meader and Albert Yeager referred to it as an “old New Hampshire heirloom” in Breeding New Vegetable Varieties (1957, NH Agriculture Experiment Station). They chose it to cross with their own Flash in a quest to breed a bush horticultural bean with bright red color, not only on the pods but also on the seeds at the green shell stage. They also wanted pods that would pop open easily. At that time, horticultural beans typically went to market in the pod when the seed was mature, but not dry, and the seed color at that stage is usually off white with only a hint of the streaking and color that becomes pronounced when the bean seeds are dry. The characteristics sought from Littleton were the large seed size, earliness and prolific production. From Littleton x Flash they created Shelleasy.

Littleton bean in bloom

Littleton is not a bush bean – it won’t stand up on its own; but, it’s not a typical pole bean either – the vines only grow to about 4′ long. Beans with this kind of plant architecture are sometimes referred to as twiners or half-runners. Like full sized pole beans, half runners have fallen out of favor. They’re not suited for mechanized harvest, and most home gardeners don’t want to be bothered with the extra work of providing support. But those whose make the extra effort discover that these types of bean give higher yields in a given amount of garden space than bush varieties.

I was always intrigued by the concept of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) grown together in hills, with the beans climbing the cornstalks. I tried this several times with various pole bean varieties only to have the beans strangle and smother the corn. When I finally tried half-runners on the corn, it worked…

You may notice in the photo below, there is no corn. In the past few years we have had a severe raccoon problem, and I can’t chance growing these rare beans where they’re likely to get ripped and trampled.

The beans growing in a bed with squashBean pods at the green shell stage

Littleton growing on short poles in a bed with squash.

The same season I got Littleton through the SSE grower’s network, I also grew out another half-runner, Mohawk Horticultural, SSE BN-220. Very little information came with either Littleton or Mohawk. For Mohawk it was simply “80-105 days, Indian, 1825 ” and that the original source was ME/HO/L (ME = Maine). After growing both for several years, I have to say that they are identical as far as I can tell.

I have an educated guess and a strong gut-level feeling about Littleton’s origins. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont was Abenaki territory. West of Lake Champlain was Mohawk territory. The Abenaki engaged in trade with the Mohawks, so I think it is reasonable to assume that Abenakis were growing this bean and calling it Mohawk in some cases. The area around Littleton NH was in the heart of the territory of the Cowas Abenakis, my ancestors. I cannot prove the connection between the Cowas and this bean, but I feel it.

Unfortunately, my grandparents’ generation was pretty phobic about anything that might be perceived as indian-ness. At the time they were starting a family racial prejudice reached a real crescendo with Vermont’s eugenics program. So, there was a major erasure of culture, and I can only piece random fragments together and guess…

Dolloff pole bean – a northern Vermont heirloom

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Dollof pole bean, dried

And now, I’m proud to present my favorite bean of all, Dolloff pole bean. I “discovered” this one in 1985 in West Burke, Vermont, just a few miles from where I grew up. I guess I could have named it Gray, after Hattie Gray, who grew it for 60 years and gave it to me, but I like to go back as far as possible with names, and Hattie’s mother got it from a Roy Dolloff in Burke Hollow sometime in the 1920s. Hattie remembered walking with her mother to Burke Hollow and back to get the seed when she was a girl.

Dolloff is for green shell and dry bean use, and is excellent either way. To illustrate, Hattie was locally famous for her baked beans served at church suppers. She laughed when she told me about how people kept asking her for her recipe. She gave the recipe out freely, but people were usually disappointed because they inevitably tried it with some other bean, and the recipe was nothing special in itself. It was all in Hattie’s beans.

Actually, Hattie called them Cranberry pole beans, but that term was widely used around here for any bean with horticultural type markings (see this post about Cranberry beans). Dolloff, however, does not have the usual horticultural bean shape. As you can see, it’s more disk-shaped, like a lima bean. Therein lies another tale. I am 99% certain that they are descendants of Horticultural Lima, as described in Beans of New York c.1931, page 72 (oops, have I revealed what a geek I am… ?). Anyway, here’s the entry:

Horticultural Lima Syn. Giant Horticultural. This variety is an anomaly among beans, and showed certain characters that led to the name and gave support to the belief that that the variety came from an accidental, or field cross, between Dreer Improved Pole Lima (Challenger) and Horticultural Pole (Speckled Cranberry) or Dwarf Horticultural which stood near each other on the place of J.H. (Alex J.-Tracy) Hodges, Pepton [sic, Ripton], Addison Co., VT. In 1885, Mr. Hodges found a pod of six beans, from which Horticultural Lima resulted. He grew it two years and placed most of the stock in the hands of O.H. Alexander, of Charlotte, Vt. The latter sold the variety to Childs, who introduced it in 1891. Ferry listed it in 1893 and after two years tests commended it highly, as did Gregory in 1894. It was said to be as early as Dwarf Horticultural and to yield good crops of fine quality green-shell beans. Gregory could not recognize any of the lima flavor with which others credited it. It was listed by 20 seedsmen in 1901.

The possibility of a cross between beans of the two species Phaseolus vulgaris and Phaseolus lunatis is denied by botanists and plant breeders, all evidence is lacking in the case of Gregory’s Curious Pole, and nothing definite supports Burbank’s claim of a similar cross. We are forced to conclude that certain peculiarities, possibly due to “sporting” of one of the horticultural varieties, or to a cross between tall and dwarf varieties in that group, misled Hodges and others into believing that a cross had taken place with Challenger as the male parent. Somewhat similar beans have arisen from inter-varietal crosses between tall horticultural varieties, like Boston Favorite (Goddard) and Crimson Beauty, which have seeds similarly marked, but long, kidney-shaped or oblong.

Plants of Horticultural Lima were rather small for pole type, not much branched, moderately vigorous; leaflets large, coarse, wrinkled like those of Dwarf Horticultural; flowers starting near ground, of medium size, white. Pods in clusters, 4 to 6 inches long, almost straight (gently curved in Gregory’s figure), with long-rounded ends and short, curved, almost central tips, flat type but quite plump, swollen over beans and constricted between them, dark green, occasionally marked purple. Seeds 3 to 6, about shape and size of Dreer Lima (Ferry), shape between kidney and lima, that is, very broad oval with straight eye-line, about 1/2 inch long, 3/4 as wide, quite plump, marked like Dwarf Horticultural, but ground color slightly darker.

There is a variety offered by the Seeds Saver’s Exchange called Golden Lima which is probably also descended from Horticultural Lima. I have not grown it, but the photos and description look very similar to Dolloff. Dolloff however, has been through more than 60 years of evolution in the extreme rigors of growing in Burke Hollow and West Burke, two of the coldest cold hollows in Vermont (USDA zone 3). Hattie used to can most of them at the green shell stage, I think perhaps because she had trouble getting them to all mature to the dry stage reliably in her cold and frost-prone location. I generally don’t have that problem. We’re only about 10 miles from West Burke as the crow flies, but we probably have a week longer season between frosts.

Dolloff has vines that will grow to more than 8 feet,
so it needs serious support.

Dolloff is a vigorous grower and bearer, so adequate support is needed. When we cut ash for firewood in the late winter, I lop off the long, more or less straight branches to an appropriate length for this purpose. I can get 2 seasons out of a pole, but after that they’re not trustworthy for anything but kindling, and believe me, you don’t want your poles collapsing in August. I use a long iron bar to make the holes to set the poles. The row shown above yielded about a gallon of dried beans.

Culinary-wise, they are great just about anyway you want to prepare them, but we especially like them for chili, baked beans, and in the green shell stage, they’re dynamite to saute and simmer a bit with whatever fresh veg you have in late August and September. Oh, and did I mention they’re low-gas? What more could you ask for from a bean!