Friday, 19 May 2006

Everything you wanted to know about broad beans but were afraid to ask

A red-flowered bean that actually has red flowers, just for a change

I grow three varieties of broad bean at the moment, all 'heritage' types. Red-flowered, Grando Violetto and Martock.

My favourite ... and I mean my favourite broad bean ever ... is the un-named Victorian red-flowered variety. I love it. The flowers are the most beautiful colour and glow in the sunlight. It's a smaller and more dainty plant than a conventional broad bean and grows to about 3ft with three red-tinged stems which usually stay up without support. The pods are small and the beans are pale green and about two-thirds the size of a modern type. But they are very abundant. And the flavour and texture are fantastic. I also found that other than a bit of nibbling by bean weevils the plant was fairly resistant to everything and only mildly bothered by blackfly.

The 'proper' colour for the flowers is a deep crimson with darker burgundy underneath, which fade slightly with age to a deep carmine. But there is some variability among the ones I've grown. Last year I grew six and no two were the same. Colours and markings varied from pale pink to dark cerise, charcoal grey with a pink flush to pale pink and black bicoloured. They were all gorgeous, but I saved seed mainly from the deepest red one. This year I grew 12 plants, mainly from my own seeds, but topped up the numbers with a couple from the original packet. I now don't know which ones were originals and which were mine, but I can guess: I have 10 deep red-flowered plants and two pink and black oddities. So I'm wondering whether the originals had accidentally been cross-pollinated with a 'normal' black and white flowered bean, or whether they naturally have that much variation. Broad beans do cross very readily.

Broad bean Grando Violetto in flower

Grando Violetto is an old Italian variety with very attractive dark purple beans. The plant itself isn't much to write home about ... it's a slightly straggly looking thing and the pods are unspectacular. It's a smallish plant but the stems need support from an early age and it has narrow grey green leaves which are slightly spear shaped. Flowers are a conventional black and white but quite unusual in form, with a pinky-mauve flush at the base. The beans and pods are smaller than a modern variety. They have plenty of substance and flavour though. I don't know how tall the plant naturally grows because mine all got their heads chewed off by slugs. Probably about 3ft though.

Martock can trace its origins back to the middle ages. That makes it the oldest vegetable variety I grow. (But not the oldest plant variety in the garden ... that would probably be a species rose called Alba Semi Plena which was brought over here by the Romans.) It has tiny beans compared to modern varieties, and I can't tell you any more than that because I haven't grown it yet. The plants have just germinated so it's early days.

Size differences in broad bean seeds: left to right, Martock, red-flowered, and a modern strain of Masterpiece Green Longpod.

I'd like to try breeding some new broad beans using the red-flowered type as a basis, but I've been having trouble working out exactly how they pollinate. I couldn't find much info about it on the internet so I had to take a flower to bits and have a look. Very clever it is. The stigma inside the flower is folded over and spring-loaded like a catapult. Given even the lightest touch (i.e. by a bee hovering about wondering how the hell to get in) it boings up and slaps itself straight into the pollen.

Plants are so unsubtle about these things. It's all wham bam thank you ma'am. Or a nymphomaniac on a spring, in this instance.

Maybe if I'd googled for "nymphomaniac on a spring" I'd have got a few more hits. Ah well. And now anybody else who googles for it is going to find my gardening blog and be very disappointed.

So, a broad bean flower doesn't even need to be pollinated by bees, even though that's what it's designed for. Which is probably just as well: I saw a bee the other day chewing through the base of the flowers to get straight to the nectar without bothering to go inside. Lazy little bugger.

Anyroad, I'm beginning to see that hand-pollinating broad beans is going to be extremely difficult. With such a touch sensitive stigma it would only work if you opened up a flower bud and emasculated it before the male bits were ready to shed pollen. Then you'd have to sellotape the bud shut to stop the stigma from drying out. A bit of a palaver really. I think, given that the plants are naturally diverse, I might just let them do their own thing and then select the variations I like and see whether any of them come true from seed.

Another little known fact about broad bean flowers ... they smell utterly gorgeous.

Phwoar, look at them broad bean flowers. Pale pink and black bicoloured variants of the red-flowered type.


Anonymous said...

hi. my partner has believed for years that bees have to polinate broad beans to get any crop. passed from generations down the line.he has always sprayed with sugar water to encourage the bees to pollinate. always plentiful crop of at least 5 acres of land +.we read that the bee wasnt needed in how to dry your own seed.he still argued the fact that its not essencial for the bee to work to have some crop. now after finding your site and comfirming the crop would be greater if pollinated than not pollinated you have comfirmed the doults he had..many thanks helen.
ps you have a great site.and for all broadbean growers sugar water when the beans in flower gives you beans like bunches of kngsize bananas,

Anonymous said...

Help please! It's my first time growing broadbeans (or any veg for that matter) and my plants are now flowering (white flowers) - what happens next? Do I pick the flowers off? Do I just leave it to do it's thing? It's in a big pot on the terrace as I have no garden. Any advice would be grand. Also, what is sugar water? Just water and sugar?


Rebsie Fairholm said...

Hello Shay, you should be fine just leaving them to do their own thing. The beans are produced from the flowers, so don't pick them off! Just let the flowers bloom and fade and the little tiny pods will form in their place (a few may fall off, but that's normal).

I've never used sugar water, but presumably it is just sugar and water. I wouldn't worry about it though. Just keep looking after the plants the way you have been doing and they should provide you with a nice crop.

Andy Tedd said...

Hi interesting blog.

I have some broad beans which flowered and have nice healthy looking pods on them, but even after a few weeks the beans inside are tiny 1-3mm, apart from a very very few. Now the beans are going dark in colour but not growing. :(

Any ideas?

Madeline McKeever said...

Just wondering if you made any progress with hand pollinating broad beans, I would like to try it too but it is all very small inside for emasculating. All my Crimson Flowered beans are the dark colour.

James Atkins said...

I am growing broad beans in Budapest, Hungary (for the first time). They have produced lots and lots of flowers, but unfortunately 90% of the flowers are just wilting and falling off. Only very few pods are appearing. Any suggestions would be gratefully received! Many thanks, James Atkins

Anonymous said...

The flowers on my broad bean plants are also just dying off. Did you find an answer anywhere?

Anonymous said...

from Chris Green,
I have been observing the bumble bees on my broad beans this season and almost all of them are drilling through the base of the flower instead of going in through the front. Consequently, there is a heavy fall of flowers and few beans setting. Never seen this before but it seems common. Can it be stopped. I am really disappointed.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the tip on pollinating broad beans. It's mid-winter here in New Zealand and they have been flowering for a while but the fruit doesn't seem to be setting - I think maybe not enough bees around this time of year, so I will see if I can unleash some of the springloaded nymphomaniacs you mention :) Thanks, Jim

Malcolm Allison said...

I'm interested to see this. I have been breeding broad beans for over 15 years now, crossing the crimson-flowered one with 'Red Epicure' which has red seeds (even when they're young) & a purple seeded variety from Estonia (the seeds of this only develop the purple colour once they're no longer worth eating). I'm keenly trying to distribute my strain of beans, which I call 'Casasa Midwinter', 'Midwinter' after the allotment site in Cheltenham where I grow them. Please let me know if you'd like some to grow ~ good crop this year. I'm majallison2000£ where the £ is replaced by @

Anonymous said...

I live in the subtropic,Australia and have found that you have to plant Broad beans late summer or very early autumn so that it's still cold when they set flowers,and then a good dose of potash, which helps to produce beans .

Anonymous said...

Hi all. Can someone please tell me why my Broad Beans are not flowering. Healthy plants 800mm tall but no flowers.

Leah said...

mine aren't flowering either. large plants but totally green. they look healthy but i'm afraid all this time and there won't be any beans.

Brother William said...

Hello I agree with you about red-flowered broad beans. I grew them here in the College Garden at Westminster Abbey - where the monks used to grow their vegetables. They were probably the most attractive flowers in the whole garden that year and smelled delicious too.

Anonymous said...

I am in Perth Australia (where June/July is midwinter) and just read a factsheet from our local Dept Ag about growing broad beans. They say to sow in blocks April to June, that sowing early results in taller plants, and sowing late results in shorter weaker plants, neither of which set as well as ones sown at the right time. I also read that Broad Beans will start to flower at all sorts of times, but they dont' start to make beans with those flowers till the temperature and conditions are right.

Unknown said...

Hello, This is the second year in a row that my broad bean crops have had a hard time producing beans. Last year i was told about and then observed for myself two kinds of bumble bees on my broad beans. Long tongued and short tongued. The short tongued came first and chewed a hole in the flower because it could not reach the nectar with its short tongue.After this any other bumble bee or honey bee would go for the hole chewed at the base of the flower and not into the flower. The result was that as spring set in the broad bean plants became larger and larger producing flowers after flowers until finally nearly each plant made a few beans. This year it has started the same but i am going to try my hand at pollinating them, and maybe put a little honey water around for more activity.

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Anonymous said...

Winter before last my broad beans were eaten by birds, so this winter I covered them with the netting I use to (unsuccessfully, as they fold their wings and squeeze through the 1cm holes) attempt to keep butterflies off my kale. I can't see any pods under the falling flowers - is this because the bees haven't been able to get to them?

Anonymous said...

To pollenate your broad beans spray the lowers with a high pressure garden hose and this will activate the trigger that causes the pollenation.

Unknown said...

my broad bean plants have no flowers on the lower 18 inches of the plantwhy why why

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