Runner bean, prizewinner
Native to Mexico, this bean has been known as a food crop for well over 2,000 years, although pods, found in caves in Mexico, are thought to be at least 6,000 years old.
In an early 17th century publication, it is mentioned as an ornamental plant in the gardens of England. Philip Miller, keeper of Chelsea Physic Garden, is credited with being the first gardener to cook it as food.
The rough pods can grow to a foot in length, developing from beautiful scarlet or white flowers.
The tender young pods are eaten; but it is the colourful, mostly red and black-flecked seeds
which are of the greatest importance.
The runner bean is almost an inch long, with black mottling near the eye.
The prizewinner (a Dutch variety) is less mottled, with only the occasional dark spot flecking the base.
The flowers of the plant,
which are also edible, are known to attract hummingbirds.
Older cultivars are rather stringy unless eaten when young, but newer varieties are stringless.
When planting the runner bean, it is compatible with anything but the Lily family (mainly onions and garlic).
If grown with maize, the runner bean protects it from corn army worms; and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots improves the soil.
Stringless types include: Butler, Desirée (with white flowers and seeds), Kelvedon Marvel, Polestar, Red Knight, Red Rum, and Scarlet Emporer.
Non-stringless types include: Bokki (with red flowers and pods), Enorma (with long tasty pods and equally ornamental), Liberty (with good-quality pods), and Painted Lady (a 19th century variety with delicate red and white flowers and long pods).
Dwarf varieties include Hammonds Dwarf Scarlet and Pickwick.
Black runner beans
have long been prized in both the US and Great Britain for their beautiful blossoms. The beans are large with shiny, deep black skin and have a slightly sweet flavour and they hold their shape well when cooked.
are also known as Gigandes and Hija. They are huge, sweet-tasting, creamy-white from the white runner bean family. They are excellent in marinated salads as they hold their shape well. They were brought to the US from Spain and Greece.
Scarlet runner beans
are also called stick beans and come from a plant grown as an ornamental for its gorgeous scarlet blossoms. Scarlet runners were introduced to England by Tradescant, the gardener for King Charles I.
White Emergo beans
are larger than the standard lima and are white and plump. They are also known as sweet white runners and make a good substitute for the gigante beans grown in Europe. They have a pleasing texture and hold their shape well in marinated salads.
White runner beans
are also known as alba beans and white Dutch runners. They are slightly smaller than the scarlet runners, but produce a creamy-coloured bean. Grown in The Netherlands, they are preferred to the scarlet, tasting something like the Greek and Spanish import called gigantes. A newer hybrid called the sweet white runner is available in specialty shops.
Yellow Indian woman beans
are a delicate type of golden runner bean grown by Native Americans in Montana. The seeds for this heirloom variety were saved and passed down through the many generations of families.