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Butter Bean, Lima Bean, Madagascar Bean

Phaseolus lunatus

It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how old I get, or how long I have been gardening, there is always so much more to learn. I have been truly amazed by this bean – but , like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, I had better start at the beginning.

I was given a couple of these bean seeds a few months ago and told that they were the variety borlotti. Dazzled by their beauty I thought I would prepare a bit of soil and give them a go in my winter kitchen garden. I didn’t really expect them to do well as beans are mostly a summer crop in the subtropics.

Well, they took off like Jack’s Beanstalk and the vine was very soon covered in tiny white flowers that started to form a multitude of leathery green pods. That’s when I knew that these were no borlotti bean and started to do some researchfor I knew that borlotti beans have long, dappled, pink and white pods. Realization dawned that these were, in fact, my all time number one favourite butter bean that I make so many of my favourite dishes from – like Greek baked beans (gigantes plaki) and Tuscan bean and kale soup (ribollita). Joy oh joy!

WHAT YOU NEED KNOW ABOUT GROWING BUTTER BEANS

  • This warm climate bean, originating from South America, is PERENNIAL which means it will last for many years in the ground. It may die down after cropping, but will then regrow!!! Every other bean I have ever grown has been an annual – meaning you have to plant it every year. In my book, it makes it a real winner.
  • It is a vigorous climber that needs a trellis for support.
  • It is tolerant of a wide variety of soil types.
  • Like most beans it needs an open position with at least six hours of sun per day.
  • It is excellent at coping with wet, humid conditions.
  • This is an fantastic hardy bean for warmer climates.

HARVEST

  • You can eat the beans when the pods are green – not the pods though. (as in photo at the top of the page, when the beans are not quite fully mature, but still delicious). When fresh like this you treat them like a broad bean, and here I am going to stick my neck out – I think this bean is far superior in taste, texture and versatility to the broad bean.
  • However, unlike other beans, you generally harvest these beans when the pods begin to dry and turn brown – the beans will begin to rattle in the pod.
  • Keep the shelled beans in a dry place until you have enough for whatever you want to cook (they will keep for up to a couple of years in an airtight jar in a cool place).
  • From one plant I have found that I have had enough for a meal every couple of weeks – this has been going on now for four months or so.
  • When it has finished cropping completely I am advised to cut it back to just above ground level, give it a compost treat and a top dressing of blood and bone and wait for it to shoot again.

COOK

  • To eat the beans from fresh green pods, simply cook as for broad beans. (see recipe link at bottom of page)
  • To cook when dry, you will have to soak them in some cold water until they swell and the skin loses its wrinkles.
  • These beans are one of my all time favourite things to eat. During cooking they will lose their red and white speckled loveliness and turn a light buttery colour – similar in taste, but with a nutty edge.
  • How do I use them in cooking – apart from adding the cooked fresh ones to salad?:
  • 1. Tuscan bean and kale soup ribollita. Click here for recipe. I’m fortunate to live next door to a chef and food writer and we have a wonderful meal sharing relationship (she needs t.l.c. too sometimes!). We shared a meal of this soup recently – and now, get ready for the endorsement – she said she dreamt about the soup (no, not a nightmare!) and woke up thinking about butter beans! We are both in love with the red and white marbled seeds that we think would make fabulous jewellry?
  • 2. Greek baked beans gigantes plaki is a dish we have eaten many times on our trips to Greece and one of our all time best-loved. This is a casserole of slow cooked butter beans, that gets a crusty topping, and is often sprinkled with feta. A simple, hearty, dish that is just delicious with some good bread and a cold glass of wine – kali orexi.

I used to think that the Greeks must cook this dish from dried beans, but now realise that, because they are so easy to grow, that they must be a universal staple crop in their kitchen gardens. Certainly, the gigantes plaki I have eaten in Greece have been far better, up until now, of anything I had cooked when starting from scratch at home in Australia with dried beans. Click here for full recipe.

Jack and the Beanstalk. Now I know this English folk tale was no fairy story.

Links to relevant posts

  1. Greek Baked Beans gigantes plaki

2. Tuscan bean and kale soup

3. All about broad beans with 5 recipes that can be substituted with butter beans