Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Scarlet - a bean for all seasons

A bee enjoying the nectar

An arbor of Scarlet Runners

The whole month’s rain falling in half an hour heralded the first day of autumn here, leaving everything refreshed and sparkling. The season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is my favourite and often one of the busiest as I squirrel food away by drying, bottling, preserving and freezing the summer’s crops.

The cooler nights have seen the end of the zucchinis, the tomatoes are now past their best and the peacharine, the very last of the stone fruits, is ready for picking. As most of the garden retreats from the cold and shortening days, the scarlet runners have perked up no end. Washed by the rain they are a bright spot of colour on these gloomy days.

Scarlet Runner Beans originated in South America, in Guatemala and Mexico. These rapid climbers were popular in England until the late 19th century when people began to choose the dwarf varieties of beans to grow in their smaller garden plots.

In frost free areas Scarlet Runners will develop tuberous roots much like a dahlia and will reshoot every year. This gives them their other popular name: Seven Year Beans. They grow vigorously when they receive regular watering. This year in my garden they have excelled themselves, traveling beyond their seven foot high (sorry, I’ve never got metric measurements right and Nerys will probably edit this when she sees it!) chicken wire trellis and have climbed into the plum tree where I need a ladder to harvest them!

They are best picked every day but don’t fret if you miss a day. They are delicious eaten young, raw or steamed, whole or sliced. Once they reach 10- 12 inches (!) they develop a tough ‘string’ as the beans inside start to form. These can be stripped out of their pods and cooked as fresh whole beans. The surprise is their colour. My 1905 vegetable book describes it as ‘liver overlaid with red wine’ – mine are much nicer and more modern every shade from a sassy hot pink to lilac streaked with a deep purple. Unfortunately, the colour fades with cooking. They can be used to make fabulous minestrone soup.

Once they stop flowering and begin to die back, you will discover fat, mouldy looking pods hanging everywhere. Bring them in, pod the beans and spread them on a paper covered tray in a single layer and leave them in a warm spot until they are hard and dry. You now have a supply of dried beans for the winter similar in taste and texture to borlotti beans that are fabulous in Mexican and Italian dishes.

My permaculture mates tell me that the tuber is also edible but I couldn’t bear to dig mine up to try. Has anyone tried this?

Our 12 bean plants feed us for nearly six months of the year and are a visual delight too. Next year we are planning to build them an arbor to climb upon from the trellis to the shed. With a little training we should be able to have beans hanging down like wisteria so we can pick at head height in a green bean tunnel.

I am happy to share seed if people in W.A. would like some. Seed Savers should be able to provide it for Eastern staters.

Wishing rain to all of you who need it, happy gardening.


  1. The colours in this blog page are beautiful...

  2. Mmmmmm I love Scarlet Runner beans ! I must get some growing here, I had a wonderful lot growing down in Tassie in '98, when we were given a house, rent free for over a year, on the side of Mother Cummings Peak, during and after being involved in an anti woodchip/clearfell blockade.
    Had an amazing vegie garden there with an amazing amount of water flowing down the hill to water it even when we were off in the van for weeks. The farm had had goats on it years before, and we used all the wonderful old straw and manure in the spiraling beds we made, under an old blue fishing net, to keep all the possums out.


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