Have we been needlessly pigeonholing multi-purpose plants? We label plants like astilbe and daylilies for shade when they are perfectly happy in the sun. We call beets and turnips root crops, even though their leaves are delicious. And so many of us grow runner beans for their flowers, ignoring the "bean" in their name. They are in the same genus as our snap beans, but a different species: Phaseolus coccineus (pronounced fay-see-OH-lus koh-SIN-ee-us.)
Runner beans are indeed edible. More than that, they are quite delicious. They were commonly eaten in early American colonies and in Britain and they are having a comeback. They are even called Oregon lima beans, where they are becoming popular as an alternative to the long season limas. The seeds are shaped like lima beans and are usually black with speckles of red or purple.
Runner beans are native to Central and South America, but they will grow well in just about any climate. In fact, they germinate better in cool spring soil than more traditional green beans. And they may even over-winter, in areas where the ground does not freeze.
The pole varieties are favored when growing them as ornamentals, but there are also bush runner beans, which begin producing pods quicker. However, it is harder to find seed for the bush beans.
Runner beans make a good choice for edible landscaping. They are undeniably attractive with plenty of flowers, especially if you keep picking the beans. The red varieties are popular with hummingbirds.
Runner beans require the same care green beans need in the garden. Plant them in a moderately rich soil, amended with plenty of organic matter. They need a site with full sun and some type of support to climb on, like a trellis or teepee.
You can direct sow or start the seeds indoors, four to six weeks before you plan to move them out. Beans grow quickly and do not transplant well, but if you have a short season and want to get a head start, I would recommend starting them inside in peat or paper pots. Wait until the ground has warmed, before planting outside or use an inoculant.
Plant two to three seeds at the corner of each teepee or space seeds six inches apart along a trellis. They are quick to germinate. Train them along their support while they are getting started. They will get the hang of it and begin to climb on their own.
Pole beans grow tall and lush before they start blooming and setting pods. Be patient, they will.
Keep the vines well watered and mulch to cool the roots. They won't need a lot of fertilizer, but a side dressing of compost mid-season will give them enough of a boost to make it through the season.
Varieties to Try
Scarlet Runner is the most commonly found variety, with bright red flowers. The following varieties offer different features, but seed can be hard to find. Hopefully, that will start to change, but if you do find and grow them, save seed to plant next year.
- 'Hestia' - A dwarf, bush variety that begins flowering early.
- 'Kelvedon Wonder' - Early, with heavy sets
- 'Moonlight' - Self-pollinating, with white flowers
- 'Painted Lady' - Pretty red and white flowers. Very tolerant of hot weather.
- 'Prizewinner' - Very prolific
- 'Scarlet Emperor' - A little fatter than a scarlet runner.
- 'Sunset' - Pale coral flowers. Freezes well in the green stage.
- 'Tenderstart' - Large, smooth pods.
Preparing and Cooking Runner Beans
You can use the young, tender beans as green beans or let them fully mature to shell or dry. As green beans, they are a bit tougher and more fibrous than regular snap beans, but cutting and cooking takes care of that. The mature beans can be a bit bland on their own but pair beautifully with heartier flavors like bacon and seafood.
Raw runner beans, as do many bean seeds, contain small amounts of the compound lectin phytohaemagglutinin which can be toxic in large amounts. Some people are considerably more susceptible than others, but be safe and cook your runner beans, before eating.