Fava Bean (Broad Bean) Plant Profile

Fava bean plant

Marie Iannotti

Vicia faba (fava beans, also known as broad beans) is a cool-weather annual vegetable, planted in either the early spring or fall. They are grown mostly for the large, flat edible seeds found inside the fruiting structures (pods). There is a good deal of variety within the different types of fava beans, in both the size of their seeds and their color (white, beige, brown, purple, and black).

Fava beans have been grown for thousands of years in many countries and are said to have been found in Egyptian tombs. There are a number of different subspecies but it is the Vicia faba var. major subgroup that is normally planted for human consumption. Another subspecies, Vicia fava var. minor is more popular in Arab countries, and Vicia faba var. equina is most often used as a livestock feed.

Broad beans plants are large and leafy plants. They can reach anywhere from 2 to 7 feet tall. The square, hollow stems are somewhat rigid and fairly sturdy, although they may flop under the weight of the pods. These are not twining climbers, as are some other bean species. The leaves are rounded and look more like pea leaves than beans. The flowers grow in spiked clusters and are white with a black dot. They mature into thick, waxy-looking pods that grow 2 to 12 inches long.

Broad beans require a 75- to 90-day growing season, depending on the variety. However, in mild climates, they can be planted in the fall and allowed to grow slowly through the winter for a spring harvest. Fall-planted broad beans can take up to 240 days to mature. In the spring, fava beans should be sown in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked.

Botanical Name Vicia faba
Common Name Fava bean, faba bean, broad bean
Plant Type Annual vegetable
Size 2 to 7 ft.; 8- to 12-in. spread
Sun Exposure Full sun, part shade
Soil Type Average
Soil pH Slightly acidic to neutral (6.2 to 6.8)
Hardiness Zones Annual vegetable; grows best in zones 2 to 7
Native Area Southeast Asia and Mediterranean region
Toxicity Poses risk to people with genetic condition called favism

How to Plant Fava Beans

Fava beans need a long, cool growing season. They won't flower well in hot, dry weather. In mild climates, USDA Zones 6 and up, they are planted in the fall and grown through winter; the plants can handle some frost. In colder zones with snowy winters, they are planted in the spring once the soil has dried out, usually sometime in April. Seeds usually germinate in 7 to 14 days, but germination may be slower in cool soil.

Fava beans are planted much the same way you would grow other types of beans. You can speed up germination by soaking the seeds in water for an hour, before sowing. Direct sow the seeds about 2 inches deep, spaced 4 to 6 inches apart. Thin the seedlings to 8 to 12 inches, because crowding can encourage diseases. You can also grow them in hills, five to six seeds per hill, with hills spaced 4 feet apart.

Taller varieties should be staked while young. Even the shorter varieties can use a little support because the pods can become heavy. Many gardeners like to pinch out the growing tip or cut off the top stem and two sets of leaves, once the beans start forming on the lower portion of the plant. This gives you an earlier harvest and keeps the centers of the plants open to airflow and sunshine, both of which help prevent fungus diseases and insect problems.

Fava Bean Care

Light

Fava beans will grow in full sun or part shade. Fava beans are a cool-season vegetable and really prefer full sun when grown in the spring.

Soil

Fava beans grow best in average soil with a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH in the range of 6.2 to 6.8. They don't mind cool soil, but it shouldn't be waterlogged or soggy. Since cool soil inhibits the bacteria that help legumes fix their own nitrogen, using an inoculant, or simply adding extra organic matter to the soil, will increase the nitrogen supply and make for healthier plants.

Water

Fava beans have average water needs—about 1 inch per week in the form of rainfall and/or irrigation.

Temperature and Humidity

Fava beans grow best at temperatures between 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and usually do not produce well when temperatures exceed 80 degrees. Planting should be timed so the growing cycle concludes before the weather gets hot. These plants are best suited for growing in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Fertilizer

Fava beans, like other legumes, fix their own nitrogen into the soil and therefore don't usually require additional feeding. Some gardeners find it useful to "inoculate" favas with rhizobium bacteria added to the soil, which helps assist the process of nitrogen-fixing.

Fava Bean Varieties

  • 'Aquadulce Claudia' is a large, Spanish variety with good disease resistance. It takes about 90 days to mature when planted in the spring, or 240 days if planted in the fall.
  • 'The Sutton' is dwarf variety (14 inches tall) that's great for limited space, containers, and windy areas. It matures in 80 days.
  • 'Sweet Lorane' is a smaller bean bred to have fewer tannins. It matures in 100 days.
  • 'Windsor' produces large, flavorful beans. It takes about 90 days to mature when planted in the spring, or 240 days if planted in the fall.

Harvesting

Pick the pods when they feel full. Since you'll be eating the beans fresh, don't wait until the pods start to dry. The older the pods get, the drier the beans will taste. If you harvest the pods while they are a little thinner than the average finger, you can cook them pod and all. After that, the pods get too tough to eat and they become shelling beans.

In addition to removing the pods, fava beans have a thick skin or membrane that also needs to be removed before cooking. You can usually just pop them out of their skins, but it can be time-consuming if you're doing a lot. Shelled beans can be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days, or frozen for later use. Cooked beans can get dried out in the refrigerator. Tossing them in a little oil will help keep them fresh.

If you miss a harvest and your beans get a little too old and dry for fresh eating, you could still cook them and make a bean puree.

The creamy, nuttiness of fava beans works well with brighter flavors such as mint, onions, and even dill. Salt also heightens their flavor, making them nice complements for sausages and good when combined with salty cheeses.

Are Fava Beans Toxic?

Individuals who suffer from favism—an inherited disorder in which a particular enzyme is deficient—may react with blood disorders or flu-like symptoms when raw or partially cooked fava beans are eaten in notable quantities. These people may even be affected by breathing the pollen of fava plants. Favism is most often found in people of Mediterranean descent, and sufferers should not eat fava beans or grow the plants. Allergy-like reactions in an individual may give a hint that the disorder is present.

Common Pests and Diseases

Fava beans are largely trouble-free in cooler weather, but warm temperatures may bring a variety of insect pests:

  • Mice and other rodents will dig up and eat the seeds.
  • Broad bean seed beetles eat holes in the seeds, though this usually does not hinder germination.
  • Pea and bean weevil will feed on the leaves and can damage young seedlings.
  • Aphids and black flies will attack as the season warms. The best strategy is sometimes to simply remove affected parts of the plant.

Fungal diseases and rust can be a problem in the cool conditions in which fava beans thrive, especially if the weather is wet. Make sure you provide plenty of room between the plants to improve air circulation.

Because fava beans are often planted in cool weather, they can be subject to ice and snow. Try to use some type of row cover for protection.