The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Dolloff pole bean – a northern Vermont heirloom

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!

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12 Responses to “Dolloff pole bean – a northern Vermont heirloom”

  1. Sarah says:

    What a great piece of detective work. They sound like the perfect bean.

  2. Ottawa Gardener says:

    I can’t think of anything more that you could ask for. Ultracool. I love looking at the picture.

  3. Alan Bishop says:

    Terrific post my friend. I really am enjoying reading about the history of beans, particularly given that in the past few years I have nearly completely ingnored their wonderful diversity and culinary power in my trials and on our farm, as for some reason my perception of beans was “boring”. I know, heretical right? Anyhow, I am going to be more than making up for that in the coming years. In the past month or so alone my fiance and I have been able to obtain close to 150 varieties for trialing, growout, sale, and preservation and I look forward to this as much if not more than any of the other projects that we are working on. By the way, I love reading your blog my friend!

  4. Freija Fritillary says:

    So glad I found this post. I have been looking for a new variety of baking bean to grow, and I thought I would try a pole variety as the bush dry beans don’t produce much. Thanks, and I look forward to reading more.

  5. Ken Greene says:

    Thanks for sharing your heirloom story. We also have a great baking bean, donated to our Seed Library from a family in Ghent, NY. It really is the perfect baking bean. Swells up without cracking the skin but the skin is still tender. Flossie was the one in their neighborhood with the recipe and skills to make baked beans for the town. Glad I found your blog- looks like we have a lot in common.

  6. Farmer John says:

    Wow, great research! Hard to find a reliable cool weather climbing bean. So have you been growing this since 1985? Have you seen any variations?

  7. the extreme gardener says:

    John – yes, we have been growing it since 85, it’s our primary dry bean. There’s another similarly shaped pole bean from the southern part of Vermont that may have also come from Hodge’s sport, Flagg, aka Chester; and one called Christmas lima that was grown around here. I plan to get Flagg/Chester and Christmas to grow out for comparison in 2010. I actually had a one-pod sport from Dolloff (7 beans) last summer, and am growing them out now. They are streaked, buff and bright yellow with a smaller rectangular shape. It will be a couple of years before I can tell whether they are as delicious as Dolloff…

  8. Richard says:

    Dolloff does very well here in the PNW and it is a great favorite. Did you get Hattie Gray’s recipe for baked beans?

    Hi Richard! – it was just the basic baked bean recipe used around here – Brown sugar and/or molasses and salt pork, with mustard seed, ginger, salt and pepper.

  9. Richard says:

    Thank you. And thank you for Dolloff.

  10. Joseph F Dolloff says:

    Thank you for finding all the data on this Dolloff bean. Roy was a 3rd cousin of my Grandfather. Our family farmed in Sutton, VT.

  11. Petra Page-Mann says:

    Thank you for writing! We LOVE Dolloff, as well. It won our 2014 dry bean taste test (out of well over a dozen varieties) and was second in production (Haudenosaunee Skunk was the first). Keep growing, keep writing and if you’re ever in the Finger Lakes of New York, stop by our farm!

  12. admin says:

    Hi Petra!
    Thanks for visiting The Extreme Gardener. Interesting to hear about your comparison of Dolloff with Haudenosaunee Skunk. I believe Skunk has a similar lima-type shape. A few years ago I trialed Chester (aka Flagg) head to head with Dolloff. Chester is most likely a derivative of Skunk (according to William Woys Weaver). It’s a nice bean, but not as early as Dolloff, and earliness is critical in our location; Chester’s yields were not as high as Dolloff for us, probably because it doesn’t get down to business quickly enough in our short season.

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