The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Littleton bean – one of our own Three Sisters

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…

Tags: ,

One Response to “Littleton bean – one of our own Three Sisters”

  1. Ottawa Gardener says:

    I had the same problem when trying the 3 sisters – the beans outdid the corn. I thought of trying taller corn varieties but they are less productive up here. Interesting bean.

Leave a Reply