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Will the real Vermont Cranberry bean please stand up?

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.

5 Responses to “Will the real Vermont Cranberry bean please stand up?”

  1. Ottawa Gardener says:

    Interesting. I picked up a bean from the local produce market that was simply labelled ‘locally grown cranberry bean.’ The bean was ripe enough that I managed to save a few beans from it and grew them out. The next year, I grew them out again to proper seed storage stage and each year after that. I had NO IDEA what they were but they look a lot like the pictures I have seen of ‘Vermont Cranberry’ or your left hand side of the picture. They are a pole bean that ripens to the dry stage well here with buff background and cranberry markings. The bean is elongated and thick through the middle. Anyhow, they are good to eat!

  2. Alan Reed Bishop says:

    Excellent post! I really enjoyed the background of your search for this elusive bean and it’s eventual re-discovery, I love reading about that kind of stuff!

  3. Deborah says:

    I have had a similar problem with the cranberry bean choosing varieties to grow at Thoreau Farm, the birth place of Henry Thoreau in Concord, MA. At first, I thought I had mixed up the seeds for the Taylor Dwarf Horticultural Bean with the Vermont Cranberry Bean (both seed from Fedco) because online I was seeing identical looking beans called “cranberry beans.” Actually enough of this research and I was certain I was losing my mind. Finally, I realized it was a naming problem and it made me dubious about just what the heck the provenance of either bean was!

    Regardless, if they are exceptional eating, I’m happy. Though neither has proven to be just that. I will look for BEAN 4315 through SSE. Thanks for the info about your search!

  4. Tom says:

    Nice article.

    I have been growing a variety of bean here in Minnesota for almost twenty years that I believe I originally acquired from the pre-commercial Seeds of Change company in the early 1990s. I lost track of the name and have been trying to identify it for quite some time now. (I learned the valuable lesson of saving old seed catalogs and original seed packets with some sample seeds inside.)

    Recently I acquired a packet of Victory Seeds’ Gross Bros. Cranberry bean and the beans are identical in appearance, size, and shape to my mystery bean. I will know for certain if they are the same when I do grow outs this summer to compare plant characteristics. If indeed the same then Victory’s claim of first commercial introduction of this variety obviously doesn’t quite hold up.

    Hate to cause a problem but my beans and my Gross Bros. beans from Victory do not look exactly like your Johnson beans in the photo in the article. Both “mystery” and Gross Bros. appear to be more kidney shaped, your Johnsons appear to be more ovate. Colors have a subtle difference as well, but that could be due to the age of the seeds or how they are stored due to the fact that bean seeds discolor with age. If interested, I included a link to a photo of my mystery beans. I would like to get your opinion regarding similarities or differences.

    If you would be interested in entertaining the possibility of trading some of your Johnson beans for some of my “mystery” beans then please contact me, I would be happy to trade. Could be fun to see the similarities or differences regarding what you and I are growing in similar climates but such disparate parts of North America.


  5. Tina says:

    Just to add to the confusion… The “Johnson” Bean looks identical to the one I got from Seed Dreams called “Iroquois Cranberry.”

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