Posted in Creatures, Plants

Scarlet Runner Beans and Hummingbirds

I first learned about scarlet runner pole beans (Phaseolus coccineus) in The 2 Hour Garden book by Roger Grounds. I honestly did not research them much beyond his mention, and rather impulsively fit them into our $20 seed  budget instead of kidney beans.  Back then, I knew very little other than they were a pole bean with at least 6′ vines (I’ve seen up to 15′ listed), and should be one of the first things in our kitchen garden once they arrived.  I read in that book that apparently most Americans don’t like the beans, while others consider them a gourmet legume.   (Apparently the shell is a bit tough for some, and at least one site recommended cutting the pod before serving, other sites say forget the pod and shell the beans.)

We planted three this year, and although all three broke ground, one faltered after only growing a few inches above the soil.  It didn’t seem diseased, so I don’t know if one of the feral cats sat on or near it or what, as one day I found it sort of slumped over with a few leaves slightly buried on one side.  I dusted it off and it seemed to be happier without the weight of the dirt on it, but it didn’t last much longer before shriveling up and dying.

Today in between rain, there had been a huge yard party going on to which apparently humans were not invited.  Many different types of birds, including one I hadn’t seen before and need to pull out my book to ID.  I was wondering if maybe because the caterpillars overall are more numerous that might have something to do with it, though even the squirrels were using the new old trellis like a jungle gym as well during that time.  It was only when the local ginger menace showed up they broke things up.  I tried to get some pictures, but all of them turned out terrible.

I was sitting at my desk, still fuming about that when I saw the most amazing thing.  A small bird seemed to be hanging out around the bean teepee, but wasn’t alighting on it.  It seemed to be…hovering and feeding on the flowers of the scarlet runner beans.  My brain instantly thought “hummingbird!”  I grabbed my camera quick as I could, but by the time I turned it on, it darted away.  Likely to visit our neighbors to the east that have two bushes planted by the previous owner specifically to attract hummingbirds.

I had just seen my first hummingbird of the year, but what the heck was it doing with the beans?  So I did  a search for “do hummingbirds feed on scarlet…” and before I finished typing the word scarlet, the results were already rolling in.  Apparently a lot of hummingbird lovers know this little factoid that I did not, and plant them just for the flowers.

Largely considered an ornamental vine here in America, they are originally from Central America.  They were first brought to England and grown as an ornamental in the 1600s, then to America–I’ve seen both early 1600s for eastern US, but also early 1800s for US overall.  From what I’ve read it wasn’t until the late 1800s that they were treated as having edible beans in both England and the U.S.  The starchy roots are still eaten in Central America as well.  There are many cultivars of them, and they are available in many other countries as well.  We seem to have the generic standard from looking at that list on the wiki page I linked.

They are also a perennial, depending on where you live.  You can plant them anywhere from April until as late as July as they will pod until freeze time in fall.  When I found a thread about them on permies, it says they can overwinter in more areas with proper winter cover in some zones (I need to go back to that thread to see if 5b is one of them).  They really are easy to start from seed, though, both from my own experience as well as what I have read.  We still have many seeds left over from what we bought this year.  Now that I know they attract hummingbirds (and I’m wondering if they attract the hummingbird moth too like the hosta plants do), I’ll be planting three times as many next year because we can always give away extra beans to the local food pantry.  I also noticed an image on one site of them grown on an arched trellis, and it was lovely.  Maybe we’ll try that next year.

One thing I want to note here: I have read that despite being from Central America, they do not set as many beans in heat (depends on night temperatures and possibly more factors.)  I haven’t followed up on that because I live in New England, but for anyone reading this in a hot clime, you might want to see what the particulars are–is it only dry heat that’s the issue?  Humid?  Will they be ok in partial shade, etc.

When I first read about them, even though Grounds himself touted them as a good screen between you and your neighbors with beautiful flowers, I figured they’re pole beans.  You eat pole beans, right?  Then once I found them online they seemed to be sold as edibles, so I thought it gave double worth to following his regime for that plant in particular.

I have a lot more respect for them now.  They offer so much from one simple seed.



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