December 26th, 2008
My first exposure to the miasma that is vegetable variety names was in the 80s, and had to do with some fine baked beans grown and cooked up by a couple of roommates of mine nearly ten years earlier, in Lyndonville, VT. They called them “Vermont Cranberry” beans. When I began to grok seed saving and heirloom plants, one of the first plants I was looking for was this bean. I figured they were called “Cranberry” due to the bean’s predominately cranberry/maroon color.
My quest was not as simple as I expected. I first tried “Vermont Cranberry” pole beans purchased from the Vermont Bean Seed Company, but these were nothing like what I remembered – the beans were not as elongated, and they had a bright pink cast with maroon streaking. I grew them out, but was not impressed.
Then, there’s also the “True Red Cranberry” bean which actually looks like a cranberry both in form and color, and has northern New England origins, with some sources saying Vermont. I haven’t grown this one, but it’s definitely not the bean I remembered.
Through Seed Saver’s Exchange Grower’s Network, I grew out “Vermont Cranberry” BN-269, which is yer basic horticultural bush bean. The next year, through SSE, I got “Vermont Cranberry Bush” from a grower in Oregon, very like in form to BN-269, but with beans that had the bright pink cast of the “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans from Vermont Bean Seed Company. Still no joy…
Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole beans
About that time I went out in earnest in search of heirlooms in my neighborhood, and found plenty. In 1985, I discovered that one of Lyndonville’s most colorful characters was a great gardener. The embodiment of extreme Vermont thrift, Alfred Smith saved his own seed, much of which was handed down from his parents. Alfred was known to most everybody who traveled though town regularly due to his annoying habit of driving his very old tractor, with wagon and chain saw, slowly through the main thoroughfares, constantly scavenging firewood all around town. Anyway, he had what he called “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans that had been in his family for as long as he could remember.
Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole bean
These are some excellent beans. Alfred used them as a dry bean, as we do. The plants and the beans are large, the vigor is very good, it’s prolific, and early enough to mature here – about 95 days to harvest for dry beans. Perhaps the color of the mature pods is the reason for “cranberry” in its name. After my experiences, though, I was hesitant to put this bean into the SSE network as “Vermont Cranberry Pole” so I dubbed it “Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole,” now aka BEAN 4315 in the Seed Savers Exchange.
These were still not the beans I remembered, but a year later I did find what I was looking for, not much more than a mile away from our home in Wheelock, at one of the last dairy farms left in our town, and going by a different name – “the Johnson” bean. Pat Wiley’s mother had been growing it nearby in Barnet VT when Pat was growing up, and Pat continued to grow it here in Wheelock.
Left, Smith’s Vermont Cranberry; right, the Johnson
Pat didn’t know what “Johnson” referred to, just that her mother always called them “the Johnson Bean.” For years I have wondered whether Johnson was a family name, or was Johnson VT, but I recently came across this seed listing from Victory Seeds, which makes me strongly suspect that Pat’s beans had to do with Johnson VT, about 40 miles west of us. Here’s Victory’s catalog description for “Gross Brothers Cranberry” bean:
65 to 85 days — An heirloom variety that was sent to us several years back by a gardening friend. She rescued it from an older gardener who has since passed away but who had grown it for many years in the short gardening season of the Cold Hollow Mountain region near Enosburgh, Vermont. Introduced commercial by us in 2007. We have been growing out limited quantities and are making them available to home gardeners. The seeds are buff and heavily mottled with cranberry coloring. They are used as green beans when young or dried. There are four to five seeds per five inch pod. The plants are upright and do not require support.
Victory’s bean photo for “Gross Brother’s Cranberry” looks exactly like “the Johnson”, the plant description matches, and Johnson VT is just a few miles from Enosburg. Best of all, “the Johnson” is the bean I remember from the 70s in Lyndonville (as “Vermont Cranberry”). Sorry I don’t have photos of the plants themselves. They’re scheduled for grow-out this next season, and I’ll be doing more thorough photo documentation at that time.
After a few years of exploring for heirlooms in northeastern Vermont, I came to the conclusion that the terms “cranberry” and “Vermont cranberry” were liberally applied to nearly any old horticultural-type bean – or should I say any bean with horticultural-type markings… and there were and are lots of them. Yes, it can all be pretty confusing, but that is the nature of heirloom plant names… and you never know what amazing plants you’ll find along the way if you set out on a quest like this one.