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Minor Botanical Mystery

So here's a thing I tweeted about awhile ago, but I wanted to do a full write up. It's an interesting botanical thing I figured out about beans!

Here's four kinds of beans. Last year, I grew three of them!

The Aztec Cave Bean keeps appearing under various guises in seed catalogs. The story goes that this bean was found in a sealed clay jar in a cave during an archaeological dig in the Seventies. Carbon dated to 1500 years ago!

Thing is...nobody knows anything about this hypothetical dig. Who ran it? Where was it? There is no info. Dig on a forum and you'll get, "Uh...maybe Berkeley?" And then I went digging around in Google Books and found a reference to this legend from the 1800s (and the author was skeptical then, too!)*

Also, the Aztec Empire flourished from the 13th to 16th century, which by my math was at most 800 years ago, so if this WAS true, it'd be a Nahuatl Cave Bean. But never mind that. Let's just say I am Very Skeptical.

The ones I got were a lovely maroon mottled bean. It looked like they'd grow into Holstein cows or tiny paint horses. Artist representation above!

I also grew the Tarahumara Red, a rare bean variety from the high desert, grown by the Tarahumara people. It's one of those varieties that I don't know why they're rare--they're tough as nails. It produces a small maroon bean with a black ring around the hilum. (That's the white mark on the bean, or the "eye.") The Aztec cave bean ALSO has a black ring around the hilum, or at least the ones I got did.

So I had both these beans and I grew them and at first, all was well. Aztecs produced and produced, Tarahumara were less productive but they kept going and going and going and they grew in crappy buckets I forgot to water.

Then an odd thing happened. The Aztec cave beans...vanished. Suddenly I was harvesting nothing but solid maroon beans with black hilums.

Okay, sez I! The Aztec beans melted in the high summer heat and humidity. This was the first year I grew them, I had no idea what to expect, and some things just melt in our heat. These are obviously the Tarahumara Reds (I had planted a couple extra about midway through the season when another set of beans had choked and died.)

And then one day I harvest some beans, shell them, and out come the Mystery Beans. Maroon bean. Single white splash right where the sprout would emerge.

I stared at them for awhile.

I finally decided they had to be an Aztec cave bean that just got weird. Okay. These things happen.

I harvested a few weeks later and got dozens more.

Had I somehow made a cross-breed between my Tarahumara and my Aztecs? Beans can cross-pollinate, but they usually don't. Even when they're grown on the same trellis, they rarely cross, unlike peppers or squash, who will joyfully sex up the world. Beans are suspicious of other beans. Peppers would cross with pine trees if they could reach that high.

And then, in late fall, the very last round of beans, suddenly I have Aztec cave beans again. Little Holstein cow beans. AND Tarahumara Reds.

What the hell just happened?

I was baffled. I threw them all in jars and eyed them suspiciously. Had I found two beans that were star-crossed lovers and crossed easily? Were these sports? (Some beans are sold with the specific note "Throws an occasional all-black bean" and so forth.)

And then, browsing seed catalogs in December, trying to keep my spirits up, I happened on a bean collector who has been growing beans since, literally, the year I was born. His site was an obsessive catalog of hundreds of varieties. And one of them was the Jacob's Cattle Bean.

Jacob's Cattle Beans are an old, old variety. They range from maroon to medium tan, and they are speckled and spotted and splotched with white. It looks like an acid washed kidney bean. It was grown by the Passamaquoddy Indians of Maine, according to legend. Unlike the Aztec, they're more...flecked, I guess? Appaloosa horses instead of paints.

What they don't tell you, what I learned from our bean collector's site, was that many, many spotted beans descend from Jacob's Cattle types, and that if you grow Jacob's Cattle in high summer temperatures, it becomes solid colored.

Now, I can't know for sure, but I will bet you a dollar that my "Aztec Cave Bean" is a reasonably modern descendant of the Jacob's Cattle Bean, and the high heat in North Carolina turned them solid red. Then, as the temps cooled, they got the first white splotch, and then finally reverted to their normal coloration.

"Okay," you say, "but why do I care?"

I have no idea, honestly. It's neat? It screwed up my counts because I kept thinking that the hot-weather Aztecs were actually Tarahumara Red, so I now have no idea what my total counts were and need to regrow both.

But anyhow, I thought it was cool that I finally got to the bottom of my mystery beans.

*There actually ARE a couple of vegetable varieties found from ancient dig sites--a very impressive squash was found on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. They named it the Gete-okosomin, and you can get seeds now, which I'll try once I've got the Gem Squash reliable.

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It IS fascinating! I love not only that you observed/documented everything, but that you also did further research and found a perfectly plausible explanation! That. Is. Cool!

So how do they taste? Can you tell the difference once they're in a chili?

Once they're in beans and rice, they're just a tasty bean! We'll see about the chili soon...

Ok, now that is pretty darn cool. Not only did you grow some interesting beans, but they got more interesting *and* you solved the mystery of why! Thanks for sharing!

That is fascinating! Good work on the research, and I agree with your skepticism on the Legend of the Aztec Cave Bean, particularly the supposed timing.

I'm also amused that I said out loud "Ursula is slut-shaming her peppers!" as a response to reading this entry . . . ;)


Oh, come now, I don't think that saying they'd joyfully sex up the world is slut-shaming.

I think that saying beans are suspicious of each other is prude-shaming

(Before anyone thinks we need refereeing, Ashbet and I are friends, promise! :) )

I know nothing of growing anything other than haphazard flowers in the annoying Minnesota weather and 9 months of winter, but that was incredibly fascinating!!

That is a cool (hot?) bean story!

This is my favorite kind of mystery. It beats murder and theft all hollow. I salute you.


Unrelated to this post, I sent you an email through your Red Wombat contact page about Arisia and young fans (children). Since Arisia is coming right up, I thought I would leave a comment here in case you see this more reliably.

Thanks! :)

What an interesting mystery. As a friend says "cool beans".

I am no gardener at all, but…

I automatically recognized the Jacob's Cattle Beans because our food co-op (which is perilously close to folding after 40-odd years) gets them from Cayuga Pure Organics in upstate New York (who had a catastrophic fire a few years ago.)

Cayuga Pure seems to have recovered, if their Twitter feed is to be believed, but I think we've suspended ordering from them for the time being. As I said, we don't know if the co-op will survive the year.

Re: I am no gardener at all, but…

thats sad about your co-op

I'm familiar with these beans under the name 'Anasazi beans' and love them; their nutty, almost pecan-ish flavor is amazing. Here's what I dug up from www.usaemergencysupply.com on them, and it matches what I've heard in the archaeological community: "The anasazi bean is named after the extinct Anasazi or the Pueblo Indians. This new, yet ancient bean has the most amazing history behind it. One story has it that in the 1950s, archeologists in one of the Anasazi digs found a sealed, clay pot with a few of these beans in it. (Carbon dating determined them to be 1,500 years old.) Some of them sprouted and the modern anasazi beans all come from those few beans. As the Anasazi Indians left their homes in the late 1200s AD, however, this would have made those beans at a minimum 750 years old! (That is, if you ignore the carbon dating.) It's generally understood by seed viability specialists today that 50 years is about as long as a seed can remain viable which puts this story into question. There is another story that the first settlers who moved into this area found these beans growing wild around the Pueblo ruins then locally cultivated them. Years later, those same archeologists found the same kind of beans in that clay pot dating back to Anasazi times. I called up the company that patented and grows the anasazi bean. The sales representative told me the story is indeed true, some of those ancient seeds did sprout, but she added that most likely, the vast majority of the seeds they used to build up the crop probably came from local gardeners in the area. A California accountant, Ernis Waller learned of the bean and with his agronomist partner, Bruce Riddell's efforts, this bean has been brought to the public. The anasazi was first commercially sold around 1983. The anasazi bean is now just gaining a foot-hold in the market."

So, probably not descended from ancient jar-beans but most likely from beans found growing around ruins (I'd totally believe that, I've found herbs in Europe growing around castle ruins and gourds here in AZ growing around Native American ruins.)

Name it after yourself ... its clearly courting you..

Thanks. That was fascinating.

It looks like I'm not the only one who likes it, but in my case, I wonder whether it's related to my finding the explanation for the Siamese coloration (the fur is temperature sensitive) very satisfying.

Do you mind if I post this to faceboook?

Fun fact about Siamese colour mutation, it's not actually the colour gene that's mutated, it's the gene that controls the expression of the 'points'. Thus, if you have cat with a different coat colour that inherits the mutant Ts gene, it will have the same pattern in a different colour.

Which makes cross-breeds occasionally very interesting. Calico flame-points with Ts pattern are weird looking but adorable.

Oh yes, Temperature sensitive colour mutation, or as my genetics professor put it, why Gregor Mendel was bloody lucky he was doing his experiments in relatively cool Germanic summers!

That's a very satisfying thing to read. Congrats to you for working it out with the research! And now if you get the same thing happening again, you'll know which beans are which.

There's a tagline for you: Ursula Really Knows Her Beans.

Jacob's Cattle Beans are an old farm staple in Maine, still found in the markets. Don't know if that relates to the purported Wabanaki origin or not.

Really neat findings!

I think this info is cool! I may even try and grow something this year.

Citrus are also very promiscuous. That's why we keep getting new kinds.

Any bean or seed that old would be suffering from radiation poisoning. Look up attempts to germinate and grow ancient lotus and date seeds. Some plant seeds do have excellent repair enzymes that sew up the radiation damage, but I doubt beans have that skill set.

Cool deduction on gene expression in your beans.

This is fascinating. Your garden is so cool!

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