Summer beans – perennials part two
29 Oct 2021
Another couple of noteworthy perennial beans worthy of your consideration as they do not require any looking after once established and can provide a lot of food. Both live 3 – 5 years.
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Lab lab / hyacinth / poor man’s bean
A wonderfully prolific bean that looks after itself.
Lablab beans come in a huge number of varieties worldwide – with pods ranging from green, green tinged with purple through to thoroughly purple, seeds ranging from cream through to red through to black, flowers ranging from white to pink to purple to blue and the plant ranging from annual through to perennial. The eating and growing characteristics vary somewhat as well. But overall, the plant is hardy, will grow 3-6m, is not prone to many insects or diseases and bears heavily even in it’s first year. The pods are wide and flat and thick skinned. There are 2-8 seeds per pod. The seeds are about 1cm in size. It won’t cross with other beans.
Despite the hysterical comments and timid articles, mostly from American sources, lablab bean IS perfectly edible, with a small and simple caveat on cooking. Many foods not properly prepared are dangerous, including potato and kidney beans, but we are now familiar with them. Lablab has been eaten all throughout Africa, India, South East Asia and China for thousands of years and is one of humanities’ oldest crops. They are known as njahe in Kenya where they seem to be a national dish, and as avaraikkai in Tamil India, where they also seem to be an everyday ingredient. Here in Australia we can familiarise ourselves with them too.
Immature pods and seeds are perfectly edible raw or lightly cooked.
Pods containing mature seeds must be cooked as for mature seeds. They are usually too tough to make enjoyable eating though.
Mature seeds, fresh or dried, contain toxins and MUST be cooked. They can be baked / roasted or boiled with the water thrown away. ie cook first then add to the recipe.
Dried mature seeds can either be soaked overnight and boiled (soak, throw water away, boil, throw water away) or double boiled (boil, throw water way, boil, throw water away). Boiling to a palatable softness without presoaking is said to take about 1.5 to 4 hours.
The seed can be sprouted and eaten raw. It’s said to be similar to mung bean sprouts.
Leaves are edible raw or cooked. They have a strong beany flavour. Young leaves are palatable raw. Older leaves need cooking otherwise they are a bit tough. In my experience they are probably a bit tough even after cooking!
Flowers are edible raw or cooked, steamed or in stews.
Roots are large and starchy and can be boiled or roasted.
The mature seeds contain both trypsin inhibitor (typical for beans) and cyanogenic glycosides (cyanide, not so typical). These are made safe by heat treating. The varieties with dark coloured seeds have higher levels of the problematic compounds. Mature seeds, whether raw or dried are poisonous and can cause vomiting and even convulsions and unconsciousness if not cooked.
Now that you are educated on how to safely eat this food, a reminder that lablab is a wonderfully robust plant that simply looks after itself. A couple of plants is plenty. It really is very productive.
Lablab prefers full sun and warm wet climates. Summer is it’s time to grow. 18 – 35°C is it’s happy place, and where annual rainfall is between 650 mm and 3000 mm. It copes fine with high temperatures and though it does not like frost, once established it will tolerate a light frost and temperatures down to 3°C for short periods of time. With it’s 2m deep taproot, this plant is drought proof once established. It is not fussy whatsoever about soil as long as the drainage is good and it doesn’t stay waterlogged. pH between 4.5 and 7.5 and no salinity, thanks.
Sow after frost. Even better if the soil temperature is at least 18°C. No need to presoak this bean. The inoculant available for lablab is J strain. Insects might attack in the first month, but usually they leave it alone.
Give it a reasonably sturdy trellis to climb and off it goes. You might need to have words with it about taking over the plum tree, but it is simple to prune. The seeds stay viable for up to 5 years and have a 95% germination rate. Which means it does tend to self seed easily though this is not really a problem. The excess plants are easy to pull up and that’s that. They don’t have any nasty tendency to keep growing.
Chickens like the foliage of lablab. It’s useful to grow on the chicken pen fence. They will help themselves to the leaves and don’t seem to bother with the seeds. This plant also makes a great fodder crop and this is done commercially in this country. It’s said to be very palatable & attractive to grazing animals and makes hay comparable in nutritional quality to lucerne. Note that the fodder varieties for sale have tougher pods and are much less palatable for humans.
Because of it’s deep root lablab is very useful in the garden to break up hard soils. Because it’s a nitrogen fixer and a prolific plant, it’s very useful as a green manure and for adding organic matter back into the soil.
The variety available via Bellingen Seed Savers is a green podded, purple flowered, dark brown/black seeded variety (with a white stripe!). The plant should live around 5 years. Generally lablab tends to die younger the cooler your climate.
The trick with lablab is to pick the pods every few days. They grow quickly and don’t keep long. The green podded varieties are meant to have tougher pods than the purple podded ones. Certainly with the green podded one currently in Seed Savers, the pods need to be quite young to be palatable. Once you can feel seeds forming inside the pod, the pod is probably too tough. Young enough, they’re quite nice, whole or sliced. Leave the pods that get away to grow seeds. The young seeds are used to make tofu and tempeh. Or leave them longer until the pod yellows, and pick them as a dried legume for winter soups. Just remember to follow the cooking instructions.
These are a fast growing, versatile, drought proof and hardy small tree that only lives for up to 5 years. Most often they are used to provide non-competing protection for baby fruit trees in their early years (windbreak, sun shelter, microclimate) and soil improvement nitrogen fixing (inoculate with J strain, as for lablab), chop and drop mulch and animal fodder. They also give food for bees over winter when there’s not a lot else, and make a generous amount of pods and beans that are human edible too. What a plant!
Focusing on their human fodder offerings, the leaves and young shoots are said to be edible cooked but rather fibrous. The young small green pods up to about an inch in length are edible cooked and quite nice despite their offputting furriness and waxiness when raw.
Mature green beans can be collected and painstakingly depodded. Some people wax lyrical about them, others say they are fluffy, insubstantial and not worth the considerable time to get them.
Mature dry brown beans (inside the dried pod) can be collected if the king parrots haven’t eaten them all, and shaken and thumped out of their pods. Don’t sit and carefully unpod one by one. The pigeon pea ‘bean’ looks and tastes similar to a brown lentil and is useful for dahl and similar dishes. You might already know it as toor dahl, eaten by millions across the world, especially as a staple in India.
Although this is called a tree, it only grows 2 – 4m tall and has a rather open canopy and small trunk. The flowers are yellow or red and yellow. The pods grow to about 5 – 9cm inches in length and contain 5 – 7 peas. The tree is renowned for its drought tolerance though it is happiest with 600 – 1000mm of annual rainfall and will even handle humid wet places with over 2500mm of the wet stuff. What pigeon pea will not tolerate is waterlogging. It is also renowned for it’s ability to grow in low fertility soil, though a lovely fertile soil will do too! It really doesn’t care about the soil type. pH range of 4.5 – 8.4. It will cope with the light frosts we get here, but not heavy frosts. Some varieties can put up with a bit of salt but generally pigeon pea hates salt spray.
To get pigeon peas growing the soil temperature should be at least 25°C for germination. Soaking seeds overnight will improve germination, as will a higher soil temperature. Seeds take 2 – 3 weeks to germinate. They are best sown here between late November and mid January, though they can be sown outside of this time. Plant the seed 2.5 – 10cm deep, either direct or in tubes. The young plants do not establish easily. They need protection from weeds and nibbling. They need to be kept watered. Once established they take care of themselves. After all this fussing to get them going, the plants will happily self seed. Go figure!
When will you be picking pods for eating? Well that depends. Most though not all pigeon peas are sensitive to the length of daylight hours. When the number of light hours drop to a genetically preprogrammed level this triggers the plant to start flowering. Nothing will convince it to flower earlier. They flower over winter and pod up in September / October in this area. Unless you have a variety that isn’t sensitive to day length and in this case they can start podding up 2 – 3 months after planting regardless of the number of daylight hours.
Note that if you are growing pigeon pea for the pods or peas, it will create far more of these when positioned in full sun. The amount of pods created drops considerably after the first two years.
A head’s up in case you’re wondering
Scarlet runner bean
Also a 7 year bean. It doesn’t do so well here as it’s too warm. It may fail to flower and make beans. But it does do well up on the plateau.
A short lived perennial that isn’t necessarily reliably perennial and fruits best in it’s first year. So it’s grown as an annual. Immature pods are eaten. Seeds are toxic but can be eaten if de-skinned like the double-podding you can do for big broad beans, which is a bit time consuming. No serious pests or diseases and bears great quantities of enormous pods up to 45cm long.
Big thanks to:
Michele Morozumi, Phil & Carol Helman, Jeff Alcott, John Vernon, Susan Doyle, Tim Hill, Nick Radford, Nell Heydon, Alison Heeley
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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