The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘beans’

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.

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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.

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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

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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..)

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

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!

Will the real Vermont Cranberry bean please stand up?

Friday, 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 is very productiveThis a really tall pole bean that needs good support

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 flowers

Flowers of
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.

Two heirloom beans from my neighborhood

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.