Friday 2 February 2007
Heritage vegetable review
Broad bean: Red-flowered
Age: 18th century
Background: Also called "Crimson-flowered". Rescued and revived by the Heritage Seed Library.
My supplier: W Robinson & Son
Pros: gorgeous flower colour, gorgeous scent, good blackfly resistance, lovely flavour
Cons: none that I noticed
This has to be my favourite broad bean ever ... the old and un-named red-flowered or crimson-flowered variety. I love it. The flowers are the most beautiful colours and glow in the sunlight.
Clearly others love it too because it's had a surge of popularity in recent years. There are still only a handful of suppliers selling it but it's been busily doing the rounds at seed swaps, so it's not too difficult to find these days.
Very simple descriptive names like "Crimson-flowered" ("Early long purple", "Tall white" etc) are often an indication of a variety's age, because it wasn't really until the Victorian era that romantic names like "Lazy Housewife" and "Egyptian Turnip-Rooted" became de rigeur. Red-flowered broad beans were described in seed lists in the late 18th century, and what we have today is either the same one or a close variant of it. The variety seems to have come close to dying out, until an elderly lady from Kent donated it to the Heritage Seed Library in 1978. It had been grown by her market-gardener father, who was given the seeds during his childhood years a century earlier.
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, at least until the podding stage. Leaves are a bright greyish green and fairly rounded. The pods are small and grow almost vertically, and the beans are pale green and about two-thirds the size of a modern type.
But they are very abundant, so yields are good overall. And the flavour and texture are fantastic. It has a slight firmness and mealiness in the texture which you wouldn't find in most varieties today but it's a nice kind of mealiness. And the flavour is sweet and lovely without any trace of bitterness. The beans cook to a nice bright green colour and only need to be lightly steamed.
The real wow-factor of this variety though is definitely its flowers. The crimson colour is so deep, voluptuous and translucent, and on spring days when the flowers are backlit by bright sunlight low on the horizon they can leave you staring at them for minutes on end in drop-jawed wonderment (they did me, anyway). And one of the unsung blessings of broad beans is that their flowers have a lovely scent. Red-flowered has the most incredibly beautiful smell ... and I speak as someone who finds a lot of flower scents headachey and nose-curdling. It's just delicate and lovely, and it stops you in your tracks as you walk up the garden path. The bees love it too and I noticed they were chewing their way through the base of the flowers to get inside them.
Other than a bit of nibbling by bean or vine weevils, who give the leaves frilly edges by eating little notches all the way round, the plants seemed fairly resistant to everything, pest-wise. And most significantly, only mildly bothered by blackfly.
Blackfly is the ubiquitous and inevitable pest of broad beans. For those who don't use sprays, the end of the broad bean season is often brought about when the plants (and pods) are so encrusted with solid black you can't even get hold of them to harvest them any more. So when I first grew this variety in 2005 and found it was completely untroubled by blackfly until the last week or two of the season, I was quite excited. I grew it again in 2006 and the same thing happened ... no blackfly at all until very late, and even then just a smattering (though there was some variation in infestation between plants ... I saved seed from the ones which stayed cleanest, which also happened to be the reddest-flowered).
As far as I'm concerned, this alone makes it priceless in the garden. I've lost so many broad bean crops to blackfly, which are quite disgusting things when they build up to critical mass, and the usual organic methods (pinching the tips and hosing the blackfly off) have limited impact. So to find a variety that just gets on and grows untroubled, looking immaculate right up until harvest time, is quite a coup.
The 'proper' colour for the flowers is a deep wine red with darker burgundy underneath, which fade slightly with age to a deep carmine. But there's been a lot of variability among the ones I've grown and I don't know if it's just me. In 2005 I grew six, and no two were the same. Colours, markings and combinations varied from pale pink, dark cerise, burgundy red, charcoal grey with a pink flush, or pale pink and black bi-coloured. I'm wondering whether the seed I've got has been accidentally cross-pollinated with a 'normal' black and white flowered bean, or whether they naturally have that much variation. They were all gorgeous, but I saved seed mainly from the deepest red ones.
In 2006 I grew 12 plants, mainly from my own seeds, but topped up the numbers with two from the original seed packet. I now don't know which ones were originals and which were mine, but I can guess: there were 10 normal deep red-flowered plants and two pink and black oddities. Broad beans do cross very readily so it would be no surprise if an open-pollinated variety like this had picked up a few stray genes from a neighbouring crop. It'll probably do it some good, too. And as long as I select the best red ones for seed each year the variability should soon disappear.
There is another old-ish broad bean with red flowers, Red Epicure ... but it's quite different, larger and with chestnut-brown seeds.